05 January 2014

NASA to test Microgravity’s effect on bacteria, Antibiotics

Image Caption: Luis Zea CU Ph.D. candidate loading Antibiotic Effectiveness in Space (AES-1) bacteria samples in preparation for the on-orbit study aboard the International Space Station. Credit: BioServe Space Technologies

NASA’s Antibiotic Effectiveness in Space (AES-1) investigation is launching in January and it will be offering scientists more insight into how bacteria behave in microgravity.

Bacteria are considered the most successful life forms, and they are hard to run from, even in space. In a microgravity environment, studies have shown that bacteria are able to survive antibiotic treatments that are meant to thwart the infectious microbes. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been stricken with infections during flights before, so understanding why bacteria are able to survive antibiotics in space is important for future missions to places like Mars.

NASA’s AES-1 experiment will be flying with Orbital’s Cygnus spacecraft in January to the space station to look into the reasons for antibiotic resistance in space. The experiment will help answer many questions scientists have about the phenomena.

“Is the mechanism that’s allowing this to occur some form of adaptation or drug resistance acquisition within the cell, or is it more of an indirect function of the biophysical environment, the changes due to microgravity and mass transport?” AES-1 principal investigator David Klaus, PhD, of BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said in a statement.

The experiment involves 32 separate combinations of E. coli bacteria and various concentrations of a common antibiotic drug. AES-1 provide a total of 128 separate data points for analysis, which scientists will check when the experiment returns back to Earth. The bacteria samples will also be subjected to gene expression examinations.

“The idea with this first round is to determine whether the cells actually grow in what should be an inhibitory level of drug, and if so, are there any correlations with specific changes in the gene expression?” Klaus explained.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will be bringing home part of the AES-1 experiment in February 2014, while the remainder of the experiment will return on another SpaceX flight later in the summer.

NASA said astronauts will need to go in and activate the 16 groups of activation packs to help kick start the experiment. Afterwards, crew members will perform a termination step on the bacteria.

Klaus said they chose E. coli bacteria because they are well characterized and BioServe has flown a lot of previous work using the same strain.

“We’re going to hopefully answer the question fairly definitively in this case of whether they really are able to grow in these normally lethal levels of drugs. That’s first and foremost, to repeat what’s been seen in the past, but do so in a more systematic way and with a larger dataset,” the researcher said.

Having a better understanding of how bacteria fight off drugs will lead to better ways to counter resistance not only in space, but also on Earth. Klaus said the goal is to use the knowledge they learn from AES-1 primarily for people on Earth, as well as astronaut crew health protection for long duration flights.

“We will always be outnumbered by harmful species of bacteria, but we can still prevail by maintaining and improving our arsenal of antibiotic weapons. The AES-1 investigation promises to be an important step in that quest, whether we encounter our bacterial foes on Earth, in orbit, or on future distant space voyages,” NASA said in a statement about the experiment.


Now read: NASA's newest Mars flyer will explore atmosphere


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