Scientists from the University of Houston have found that bacteria become stronger in space, and at the same time, perhaps more dangerous. In this regard, future long journeys into space may be threatened. Madhan Tirumalai, MD, of the University of Houston and a researcher at the NASA Institute of Astrobiology, found that bacteria mutate and multiply in space. Within the most detailed study to date, scientists have observed the development of 1000 generations of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in a rotating container with an imitation of microgravity.
It turned out that the bacteria got 16 mutations. Then, when they were placed next to an ordinary E. coli, the space prototype increased three times as much and supported the 72% adaptive advantage. Adaptations were left even after the scientists tried to remove them.
Some changes were slightly disturbing: mutations affected genes associated with biofilm production, which often makes cells more reliable and virulent. However, not every mutation resulted in a negative effect. As Tirumalai wrote, E. coli retained sensitivity to antibiotics. That is, even if bacteria under microgravity conditions turn into monsters, we can still rely on antibiotics.
Nevertheless, all this can be very sad for space travelers of the future. E. coli is a relatively safe bacterium, but others can be more dangerous, and the diseases associated with them can jeopardize the mission, cost lives and money if mutated in an unpredictable way. Potential consequences can be even more alarming if we recall the 2013 study, which revealed that in space, immune “human cells can not react to pathogens,” meaning “astronauts can get sick faster because their immune system is weakened.”
More such experiments are needed, especially against the background of the wild development of space flights involving people. More and more people are going to space in the framework of commercial flights. Practical moments – for example, how microgravity affects bacteria and our bodies, as well as the potential consequences of isolation for mental health – should be considered before we begin to go too far into space. This is especially true for long flights, for example, to Mars.