NASA has decided to send an antibiotic-resistant superbug to the International Space Station on Sunday. The superbug will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center launch complex, where the first manned mission to the moon lifted up.

NASA hopes that by sending the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – or  MRSA bacteria – to a zero-gravity environment, scientists will be able to understand better how superbugs mutate and therefore they will be able to create more potent antibiotics than those currently available.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station captured this view of lightning over the Pacific Ocean at night. Image Credit: Space/NASA

“We are excited to put MRSA on the International Space Station and investigate the effects of microgravity on the growth and mutation patterns of these bugs,” said medical doctor and physicist, Anita Goel, at a NASA news conference last week.

Microgravity accelerate the mutation pattern 

According to NASA and Dr. Goel, sending the MRSA bacteria to the international Space Station will allow scientists to study how the evolution of superbugs is in a zero-gravity environment.

Goel said that according to her hypothesis, the antibiotic resistant bacteria should mutate faster once in space. Scientists at the ISS will be able to predict how superbugs will mutate here on Earth, and they will be able to create more effective antibiotics.

The superbug they are sending is the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is sometimes called staph. It is resistant to the antibiotic methicillin and many others.

These bacteria can cause diverse problems including pneumonia, sepsis and skin and bloodstream infections. They will be carried to the ISS on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket which is scheduled to be launched on Sunday from the Kennedy Space Center launch complex.

“I have this hypothesis that microgravity will accelerate the mutation patterns. 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.” Said Goel, who is also the chairwoman and CEO of her lab and company, Nanobiosym, which is focused on seeking technologies that combine physics, biomedicine, and nanotechnology.

Goel is also interested to see the changes in the gene expression patterns of this bacteria. She said that the DNA is like a piano since the information in the DNA sequence is only a part of what makes the music of an organism.

However, both the information embedded in the environment and the information embedded in the DNA interact, and together, they determine the music that the organism play.

According to research, the stressful conditions of the space will cause an accelerated growth of bacteria. Goel alongside NASA hopes that this will be an opportunity to create resistant-enough antibiotics to kill the superbugs before they evolve in Earth.

Astronauts will not be directly in contact with the superbug

Sending superbugs to space might raise concerns regarding the safety of the astronauts. However, Goel reassured that astronauts will not come directly intro contact with the harmful bacteria.

As well, it is important to keep in mind that it is not the first time that NASA has worked with bacteria at the space station. The bacteria will be sealed with three levels of containment. There are going to be carefully packaged, including a portable habitat that is protected from rapid depressurization.

The ISS is practically an orbiting lab where hundreds of experiments are performed on a daily basis. The ISS has already a “microbiome” of bacteria based on the astronauts that have been there. In 2016, the DNA was sequenced for the first time in the ISS.

Therefore, the ISS, in this case, is going to be used as an incubator to know more about bacteria from different perspectives. It will allow scientists to develop better algorithms on Earth and to come up with better drugs in less time.

Goel thinks that space is actually an excuse for them to see thinks in a different way. She is sure that the experiment will give scientists a new understanding across multiple fields.

NASA’s future plans include flying a giant manned rocket

NASA’s plans go beyond bacteria in the space. There are hoping to fly the Space Launch System (SLS) for the first time by fall 2018.

However, NASA employees received a memo early today expressing the desires of the agency to find out a way to make out of the debut flight of the SLS a crewed mission instead.

The SLS is a giant heavy-lift rocket called EM-1. The idea was first shared at the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, DC. Then NASA employees received the memo, and they were somewhat excited about the news. Nonetheless, this means that the mission will probably be pushed back from late 2018.

“I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier [the associate administrator of human exploration at NASA] to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration MISSion-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion,” wrote Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, in the memo. “I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space.

Source: CNN