SpaceX is preparing to launch a lethal, antibiotic-resistant superbug into orbit on February 18, to live its days in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station (ISS).
The idea is not to weaponize space with MRSA — a bacterium that kills more Americans every year than HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, emphysema, and homicide combined — but to send its mutation rates into hyperdrive, allowing scientists to see the pathogen’s next moves well before they appear on Earth.
The NASA-funded study will see SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch colonies of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) into space, to be cultivated in the US National Laboratory on the International Space Station (ISS).
“We will leverage the microgravity environment on the ISS to accelerate the Precision Medicine revolution here on Earth,” lead researcher Anita Goel, CEO of biotech company Nanobiosym, told Yahoo News.
The device will be used on the International Space Station to evaluate how bacterial mutations of two strains of MRSA respond to the microgravity environment.
From that, Goel and her team will develop models that predict how the antibiotic-resistant pathogen will mutate on Earth in the coming years, giving drug developers a chance to pre-empt its next defensive moves.
“Our ability to anticipate drug-resistant mutations with Gene-RADAR will lead to next generation antibiotics that are more precisely tailored to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous pathogens,” says Goel.
What happens to killer bacteria in space
At this stage, the team doesn’t know for sure how the MRSA bacteria will respond to their new home in Earth’s orbit, but previous research on space-faring bacteria has shown that the environment can result in similar growth, mutation, and population trends — just at an accelerated rate.
This is because in space, some metabolism-related proteins became more active, and low-dose space radiation can change the activity of certain genes.
A 2000 experiment found that after 40 days aboard Mir — a Russian space station that operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001 — mutation rates for a cloned bacterial gene inserted into yeast were up to three times higher than the control group back on Earth.
Another study from 1999 found that certain strains of E. coli had high mutation frequencies after a trip into space, but the types and frequencies varied widely depending on their conditions.
Judging from the strange effects made clear in NASA’s ongoing Twin Study, there’s still at lot we don’t know about how space messes us — for good or ill.
But it’s thought that the effects of microgravity are the main drivers for this accelerated mutation, and suspect that exposure to radiation outside the protective barrier of Earth’s magnetic field could also be at play.
“There is general agreement that microgravity represents the major influence on bacterial growth kinetics and bacterial cell behaviour during short orbital flights,” a 2015 paper reports. “Radiation may increase microbial mutation rates during flight.”
If Goel’s hunch is right, and space really does put MRSA into overdrive, it will basically be like seeing all of your opponent’s moves in advance when you’re playing a game of chess.
So instead of waiting for MRSA to develop a new kind of defence in response to current medications before we respond with a new kind of treatment, we could ‘fast-forward’ this process in space, and come out with a model for the next few decades of antibiotic resistance.
And that’s important, because antibiotic resistance is looking more and more like one of the biggest threats to humanity right now, and is expected to kill hundreds of millions around the globe in the coming years if current trends continue.
With 90,000 Americans being infected with MRSA every year, and up to 20,000 dying from it, this is one pathogen we need to get the jump on, fast.
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