Miriam Kramer reports on a study conducted in space that could be useful for long term space-flight missions and may even have implications for bacterial research right here on earth.
A team of scientists sent samples of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa into orbit aboard NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis to see how they grew in comparison to their Earth-dwelling counterparts. The 3D communities of microorganisms (called biofilms) grown aboard the space shuttle had more live cells, were thicker and had more biomass than the bacterial colonies grown in normal gravity on Earth as controls. The space bacteria also grew in a “column-and-canopy” structure that has never been observed in bacterial colonies on Earth, according to NASA scientists. [The Human Body in Space: 6 Weird Facts] “Biofilms were rampant on the Mir space station and continue to be a challenge on the [International Space Station], but we still don’t really know what role gravity plays in their growth and development,” NASA’s study leader Cynthia Collins, an assistant professor in the department of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., said in a statement. “Our study offers the first evidence that spaceflight affects community-level behaviors of bacteria, and highlights the importance of understanding how both harmful and beneficial human-microbe interactions may be altered during spaceflight.” “The unique appearance and structure of the P. aeruginosa biofilms formed in microgravity suggests that nature is capable of adapting to nonterrestrial environments in ways that deserve further studies, including studies exploring long-term growth and adaptation to a low-gravity environment,” Collins said in a statement. “Before we start sending astronauts to Mars or embarking on other long-term spaceflight missions, we need to be as certain as possible that we have eliminated or significantly reduced the risk that biofilms pose to the human crew and their equipment.” The study, published in the April 20 issue of the journal PLOS ONE, also could have implications for bacterial research on Earth. It’s possible that this kind of research could help scientists and doctors more effectively limit the spread of infection in hospitals, Collins said.