On Saturday, February 18th, a SpaceX Dragon capsule will shuttle a superbug into space that kills more people each year than emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s Disease, and homicide combined: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, more commonly known as MRSA. It’s on behalf of a study conducted by NASA and biomedicine company Nanobiosym, but I can’t help but feel like this was Elon Musk’s idea for a science fiction spec he’s working on.
To be fair, there’s a valid reason to send this particular strain of bacteria into space. On Earth, MRSA—which physically manifests like a bad staph infection on a person’s skin—is resistant to many penicillin-related drugs, including methicillin. The idea is that by sending MRSA into microgravity, where there’s reason to believe it may mutate faster, we can improve our understanding of how the deadly bug develops resistance in the first place.
“Microgravity may accelerate the rate of bacterial mutations,” Dr. Anita Goel of Nanobiosym, who’s leading the study, told Space.com. “If we can predict future mutations before they happen, we can build better drugs.”
This is far from the first time bacteria have been sent into space for the purpose of developing better treatments. Such experiments trace back to 1960, when a Russian satellite ferried disease-causing E. coli, Aerobacter aerogenes, and Staphylococcus into space, only to find that these bacteria could in fact survive in microgravity, according to the Washington Post. Since then, several strains of bacteria have been sent off Earth for observation, in some cases increasing their resistance to antibiotics, or altering their growth patterns.
In 2006, microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson sent salmonella aboard the Atlantis Space Shuttle to see how it would react in microgravity. After the salmonella was returned to Earth for further examination, Nickerson found it was killing mice at an abnormally fast rate. So yeah, not great.
Hopefully, this experiment will bring us closer to a cure for MRSA. As for the safety of the astronauts aboard the ISS right now, NASA assures us the bug will be kept at a high level of containment.
And maybe if we’re lucky, Elon Musk’s shitty sci-fi movie will never get made.