Over the past few months, COVID-19 has had a massive impact on our entire economic and social world. Across the planet, leading scientists and microbiologists are racing to create a vaccine, but the process to create cures for pathogens is costly and time-consuming. It’s predicted that a certified vaccine could be at least a year away. But with help from the space community, the path to developing a vaccine could be sped up.
Experiments onboard the ISS are teaching us about emerging pathogens and the potential to mitigate future pandemics. In 2017, NASA launched deadly bacteria to the International Space Station in order to study the effects of bacterial resistance in space. Through this experiment, scientists are using the effects of microgravity to predict the future mutations of these bacteria. While the SARS virus that causes COVID-19 disease is technically a virus, scientists worry that wide-scale use of antibiotics may lead to the development of biological superbugs. This occurs when bacteria with certain genetic mutations can survive antibiotics and pass on these mutations as they reproduce, creating resistance to our medical treatments.
Since antibacterial drug development is a costly and time-consuming process, a superbug could lead to future pandemics. To better understand the development of infectious pathogens, NASA scientists are studying potential pathogens such as MRSA, salmonella, and E. Coli in the harsh conditions of outer space. They found that the reduced gravity allowed E. Coli cells to grow much smaller than normal and also develop thicker cell membranes. These mutations allow more bacteria to survive the antibiotics, leading to rapid mutations with higher resistance to our medication. In some cases, strands of bacteria were mutating 60% faster than they would on Earth. This gives us hindsight into how an outbreak on Earth could develop before it actually happens.
Infectious disease experts are using the data collected aboard the ISS to model future mutations of MRSA, a dangerous pathogen that is commonly spread in prisons, hospitals, and schools. The accelerated growth conditions of this bacteria in space will hopefully lead to developing better, smarter drugs before the mutations actually occur. Despite the benefits that these experiments might bring to life on Earth, the faster mutation of space bacteria also poses a threat to spaceflight. Astronauts need to take extra precautions to avoid becoming sick in space and to ensure that they don’t carry home diseases that have mutated in space. Invisible to the naked eye, microorganisms tag along as unintentional passengers to the International Space Station.
Recently there were two superbugs with known antibacterial resistance discovered in the plumbing of the ISS which could present severe lung risks to the astronauts on board. To combat these risks, astronauts have to undergo strict sterilization methods after being in space. The Apollo 11 crew famously spent 21 days in quarantine after returning from their groundbreaking journey. Nowadays, astronauts typically quarantine two weeks before launch. Sound familiar? These measures reduce the risk of astronauts passing on deadly pathogens to other crew or contaminating space laboratories and equipment.
These biological experiments in space can help us achieve a better understanding to combat pathogens on Earth. As our advances into spaceflight continue, it will also be important to consider how microbes and viruses interact in the future. Space tourism companies must be mindful of the threat of rapid bacteria mutations, and the increased possibility of epidemics if humans ever begin to colonize other planets. So, as humans continue exploring the cosmos, these experiments are an important reminder that space is becoming a living environment with the same concerns and possibilities as Earth. With the world struggling to cope with the covid pandemic, scientists are racing to produce an effective vaccine. Incredible things like this can only happen when the most ambitious and curious minds come together.
In the meantime, let’s do what we can on Earth by wearing masks, social distancing and sanitizing our hands. Just visit www.medshieldgroup.com for all of your daily safety needs.
Be Safe. Be Kind. Be Smart.
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