Why NASA is sending a superbug to the space station
An antibiotic-resistant superbug will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Saturday from the same Cape Canaveral pad where the first manned mission to the moon lifted off and soon be studied by astronauts on the International Space Station.
Before you start to worry, this isn’t a sign of an impending apocalypse. Working in conjunction with NASA, lead researcher Dr. Anita Goel hopes that by sending MRSA bacteria to a zero-gravity environment, we can better understand how superbugs mutate to become resistant to available antibiotics.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, sometimes called a staph, is resistant to the antibiotic methicillin and many others. It can cause a variety of health problems including sepsis, pneumonia and skin and bloodstream infections.
Goel is a medical doctor and a physicist. She’s also chairwoman and CEO of her lab and company, Nanobiosym which seeks out breakthroughs and technologies that span and combine physics, biomedicine and nanotechnology.
“We are excited to put MRSA on the International Space Station and investigate the effects of microgravity on the growth and mutation patterns of these bugs,” Goel said at a NASA news conference last week. “I have this hypothesis that microgravity will accelerate the mutation patterns. If we can use microgravity as an accelerator to fast-forward and get a sneak preview of what these mutations will look like, then we can essentially build smarter drugs on Earth.”
Goel is also interested to see the changes in the gene expression patterns of this bacteria.
The space station is essentially an orbiting lab where hundreds of experiments are carried out every day. The zero-gravity, or microgravity, environment has already been host to research on bacteria. The ISS itself has a “microbiome” of bacteria based on the comings and goings of astronauts. In 2016, DNA was sequenced for the first time aboard the station.
This all connects back to Goel’s initial interest in the effect of an environment on DNA and what can be retrieved from it.
“The DNA is like a piano. The info in the DNA sequence is only part of what makes the music of an organism,” she said. “The info embedded in the environment interplays with what is embedded in the DNA sequence, and together, they determine the music that the organism plays.”
Research has shown that the “stressful conditions” of the space station’s zero gravity cause fungi to grow faster. Goel hopes that the ISS will work in a similar way for the bacteria to give us a predictive edge on superbugs.
“If indeed we can use the ISS as an accelerator, an incubator, to know what future mutations of superbugs like MRSA will be, we use that info to develop better algorithms on Earth to inform drug discovery and faster ways to get to smarter drugs that are more personalized and more precisely targeted to a bug or strain at hand. We can have those drugs ready before the mutations even show up on Earth.”
For anyone concerned about delivering a superbug to astronauts within the cramped quarters of the space station, Goel offered reassurance that they will never come directly into contact with the bacteria. This isn’t NASA’s first rodeo with bacteria or superbugs on the station, she said.
The bacteria will be sealed with three levels of containment and tightly packaged, including a portable habitat that is protected from rapid depressurization and even the rigors of traveling on a rocket to the station.
Goel is curious to see the effects of not only microgravity on the bacteria but electromagnetic radiation and other unanticipated elements. Studying anything in space is going to afford new understanding across multiple fields, she said.
“I think the space station and microgravity is an excuse for us to relook at our accepted paradigms and ways of thinking from a fresh perspective, and once we do that, we learn new things and discover new ways of looking at old things and looking at old data in new ways.”