Here’s Why NASA Is Sending a Superbug Into Space
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It’s a development straight off the pages of a science fiction film script — on Saturday, NASA will fire a superbug up into the sky toward the International Space Station.
Dr. Anita Goel — who is both a physician and a trained physicist — is spearheading the effort to send a superbug into space.
“I’ve really been on a personal and professional quest to understand the physics of life and living systems,” Goel said.
She pitched the idea to the Galactic Grant competition hosted by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center in 2015. She won — and now, the superbug is launching on a SpaceX rocket as part of a collaboration between Goel’s company, Nanobiosym, and NASA.
The goal: Create an accelerated model of how bacteria evolve to become dangerously resistant to antibiotics.
Here’s what she had to say about the project.
What does sending a superbug into space entail?
We’re going to be growing a superbug called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in a microgravity environments. It’s an infection that’s caused by a type of staph bacteria that’s mutated to become resistant to antibiotics like methicillin. It’s rampant in hospitals across the US and the world. It rapidly mutates and easily becomes drug-resistant to our current portfolio of antibiotics. So what I’m trying to do on the ISS is to investigate the effects of microgravity on the bacteria.
What are you hoping that’ll reveal?
I have this long-standing theory that the environment affects how information is received from genome and transcriptome. So the information stored in a bacteria’s genome or how it mutates would be affected by changing its environment. By going away from the Earth to microgravity, we’ve changed the environment. Could we in fact change the mutation patterns and gene expression patterns?
What do you suspect might influence those mutations?
We’re growing them in microgravity and then growing their twin [bacteria] on Earth to compare. So first, we want to know if there is an effect. And if there is indeed a real effect, then the question becomes why is there an effect? Is that [because] you change gravitational field? Is that because the electromagnetic background radiation is different, because you don’t have the Earth’s atmosphere to filter it through? It should return back to earth between 30 and 45 days after going into orbit. Then we will harvest [the samples] and do an analysis.
How can those results be used?
The practical application is to build more precise drugs. We can use this [experiment] as an accelerator to predict what these mutations will look like in the future. If we can use microgravity to better predict how a superbug is going to mutate — it can give us a sneak preview — we can use that information to anticipate and build better drugs before those mutations arrive on Earth.