Space E-Coli

A new study might have bad news for future space travelers. Madhan Tirumalai, Post Doctoral Fellow at the University of Houston and part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has discovered that bacteria mutate and proliferate in space-like conditions. As part of the most rigorous study to date, he observed E. coli development over 1,000 generations in a rotating container designed to simulate microgravity.

He found that the bacteria developed 16 mutations, and when they were placed next to normal E. coli cells, they grew around three times as many colonies and maintained a 72 percent adaptive advantage. Further, their adaptations remained even when researchers tried to erase them.

E. coli magnified 10,000 times. Image Credit: Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley. Wikimedia

Some of the changes were slightly worrying: mutations affected the genes related to biofilm production, which often makes cells more robust and virulent. However, not every mutation necessitates a negative change. In fact, as Tirumalai wrote, the E. coli was still susceptible to antibiotics. Essentially, even if microgravity turns bacteria into superbugs, we can still rely on antibiotics.

Bugs and Space Travel

This could be worrying news for future space-travelers. E. coli is a relatively benign bacteria, but other nastier bugs and diseases could jeopardize entire missions — costing precious life and money — if they mutate in a violent or untreatable way. The potential consequences become more worrying when we consider that a 2013 study found that in space human immune "cells are not able to respond to a pathogen anymore," which "means that it will be easier [for astronauts] to get sick because their immune system is weakening.”

Tirumalai explains, “We need more of this kind of experiment, especially with human space flight gaining more traction in recent years." News concerning more people going to space as part of the commercial spaceflight revolution is exciting. However, practical considerations – such as how microgravity impacts bacteria and our bodies, as well as the potential consequences of isolation on our mental health– must be dealt with before we embark, particularly when it comes to long flights such as the plan to go to Mars.

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