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Reasons Why NASA Is Sending Pathogens into Space This Saturday

By Charles Omedo , Feb 18, 2017 03:31 AM EST
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ISS astronauts display how to construct a pizza in zero gravity

In their bid to understand how antibiotic-resistant bacteria or superbugs mutate to become resistant to powerful drugs, NASA are sending samples of MRSA superbugs to space for further study. The deadly pathogens will leave Earth on a trip to the ISS on Saturday, February 18, via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will launch from the Cape Canaveral pad. The study is led by a medical doctor and physicist, Dr. Anita Goel of biomedicine company Nanobiosym.

A profile of drug-resistant superbugs

The term "superbugs" is fitting considering the fact that deadly pathogens are becoming very drug resistant and a mounting frustration to pharmaceutical companies. Superbugs have been documented to kill more Americans annually than the combined actions of HIV/AIDS, homicide, emphysema, and Parkinson's disease. The most deadly among these drug-resistant superbugs is the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureaus or MRSA which is resistant even to powerful antibiotic methicillin among others, Gizmodo notes.

Why are they sending superbugs to space?

Since MRSA causes pneumonia, sepsis and other critical diseases, Dr. Goel is partnering with NASA to send strains of the bacteria to space in the hope that its mutation characteristics will be understood. Earlier studies have shown that MRSA mutate faster in microgravity or space, and understanding this quick mutation pattern will help researchers to develop stronger drugs faster than the mutation process. "If we can use microgravity as an accelerator to fast-forward and get a sneak preview of what these mutations will look like, then we can essentially build smarter drugs on Earth," Goel said.

Since the existing microgravity condition in space accelerates the reproduction and mutation of bacterial strains, Goel is confident that researchers will be a step ahead of this process in having effective drugs handy, the CNN wrote.

Bacteria strains have been taken to space before now

This is not the first time NASA researchers are taking bacteria strains to space for study. Microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson dispatched salmonella strains via the Atlantis Space Shuttle in 2006. Several strains of staphs, e.coli and Aerobacter aerogenes were taken to space in 1960 aboard a Russian satellite. And tens of bacteria DNA have been sequenced aboard the ISS for several years now.

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