Space Can Turn Bacteria Into Supercharged Mutant Monsters

By Ashley Feinberg on at

While it's still questionable whether or not humans could really thrive in space, we now know that, even if our own bodies are doomed to become weak and decrepit, any bacteria we tote along have every chance of living full, happy lives. Because according to new research, space might be exactly what bacteria need to become a thicker, stronger, superpowered mutant versions unlike anything we've ever seen on Earth.

More specifically, though, the two astronaut crews involved in the study were growing colonies of biofilms — some of which are strongly associated with disease. And what they found proved to be a bit unsettling, depending on how you feel about giant, nearly unmanageable colonies of bacteria. According to NASA:

The space-grown communities of bacteria, called biofilms, formed a ‘column-and-canopy’ structure not previously observed on Earth. Biofilms grown during spaceflight had a greater number of live cells, more biomass, and were thicker than control biofilms grown under normal gravity conditions.

And the biofilm they used (Pseudomonas aeruginosa) was lovingly cultivated in artificial urine for three days aboard two different shuttle missions — meaning that these results come from the very same environment that humans on longterm space flights would face. With waste management and water recycling being an ongoing issue, bacteria would have even more time to multiply, so what we're seeing in this study could really just be a fraction of a possible gargantuan bacteria biosystem.

Of course, this applies strictly to zero-gravity spaceflight, and conditions for human colonies on other planets — oh, say Mars, for instance — could mean stunting the prolific biofilm in much the same way our atmosphere does here on Earth. But the research has practical applications, too. NASA notes:

Examining the effects of spaceflight on biofilm formation can provide new insights into how different factors, such as gravity, fluid dynamics, and nutrient availability affect biofilm formation on Earth. Additionally, the research findings could one day help inform new, innovative approaches for curbing the spread of infections in hospitals.

Even if it turns out that it's just as easy to keep bacteria in check on other planets, our attempts to understand their growth could do worlds of good to curb disease-causing bacterial growth here on Earth, which is still a very real problem. So for now, let's just be glad that the only nuisance-causing bacteria we have to grapple with are, in fact, of the non-crazy-mutant persuasion. [NASA via PopSci]

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