Bacteria Can Shapeshift In Space, Study Finds

Posted: Sep 15 2017, 8:49am CDT | by , Updated: Sep 15 2017, 8:52am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Bacteria can Shapeshift in Space, Study Finds
Credit: Alex Alexiev

Bacteria change their shape in space in reponse to antibiotics and become more resistent to them

Bacteria can alter their shape under microgravity conditions of space and this clever shapeshifting allows them to become more resistant to drugs. That’s according to a new study published by UC Boulder.

The findings provide important evidence of antibiotic’s effects on bacteria in near-weightless conditions of International Space Station and may help understand the risk their communities can pose to astronauts during long-term missions to space.

“We knew bacteria behave differently in space and that it takes higher concentrations of antibiotics to kill them. What's new is that we conducted a systematic analysis of the changing physical appearance of the bacteria during the experiments." Lead study author Luis Zea from University of Colorado Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies said in a statement.

Microorganisms like bacteria are found practically everywhere and some of them are even hazardous to health. However, we don't have any reliable substitute on Earth for testing space conditions. Ground-based researchers use different methods to simulate microgravity in their laboratories but all these methods have limitations.

In the latest effort, researchers cultured the common E. coli bacteria on ISS and treated it with several different dozes of antibiotic gentamicin sulfate. The drug is highly effective in killing bacteria on Earth. But the strain grown aboard space station behaved in a way never before observed on Earth.

In space, cultured bacteria responded with a 13-fold increase in cell numbers and a 73 percent reduction in cell volume size compared to a control group on Earth. Moreover, some of the E. coli cells also produced membrane vesicles or small capsules that form outside the cell walls and act as messengers for cells to communicate with each other.

“Both the increase in cell envelope thickness and in the outer membrane vesicles may be indicative of drug resistance mechanisms being activated in the spaceflight samples.” Zea said.

The remarkable resilience of bacteria in space has been demonstrated before, but new experiment give researchers an opportunity to better understand how bacteria mutate and become more resistant to antibiotics in space.

One of NASA’s goals is to minimize the health risks associated with extended spaceflight. So, it is necessary to develop methods for preventing and treating spaceflight-induced illnesses before astronauts depart for long-duration space missions and the findings may have implications for more effectively treating astronauts with bacterial infections.

“The low gravity of space provides a unique test bed for developing new techniques, products and processes that can benefit not only astronauts, but also people on Earth,” said co-author and BioServe Director Louis Stodieck. "In space, for example, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in various cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking."

The experiment was launched to ISS in 2014 through Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft and returned to Earth for analysis on a commercial SpaceX Dragon spacecraft several months later.

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