An experiment designed at the University of Colorado at Boulder, testing the effect of microgravity on antibiotics, blasted off into space today. CU scientists believe the mission could help solve how bacteria develop drug resistance, a danger to astronauts and Earth-dwellers alike.
The flight is bound for the International Space Station, and the experiment—along with an educational project studying ants, also was developed at CU—is being carried by a Cygnus transport, a commercial spacecraft developed by Orbital Sciences Corp.
The CU antibiotic experiment could tell us why some strains of bacteria are able to withstand the effects of medications, CU professor and principal investigator David Klaus said.
“Our antibiotic experiment is designed to gain insight into how bacteria are increasingly able to develop resistance against so many drugs commonly used to treat infections, which is a growing global concern,” Klaus said.
It’s a major problem for doctors and patients. Bacterial resistance kills about 100,000 Americans each year, according to a study cited by CU. In the worst case, widespread resistance could return us to a time when doctors are powerless to treat what are now minor infections.
Scientists have long known about the dangers that antibiotic resistant bacteria present, and the public is slowly waking up to the problem. Outbreaks of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, in hospitals, prisons, and even NFL locker rooms are becoming more prevalent and gaining media attention.
The problem of treatment resistance is even more troublesome in space, Klaus said.
In microgravity, “bacteria are able to thrive in what would normally be a lethal antibiotic concentration. We hope to learn more about what is allowing this growth to occur at a genetic level and use this information to improve our understanding of the drug resistance acquisition process in general,” he said.
The CU experiment will examine how different concentrations of antibiotics change the gene expression of the bacteria E. coli, according to CU.
Figuring out how bacteria quickly adapt to survive antibiotics could be a very big deal. In addition to the people it kills, in the U.S. alone attempts to treat antibiotic-resistant infections costs $20 billion per year, the university said.
The experiment also could help keep astronauts healthy, said Luis Zea, a doctoral candidate involved in the research.
The second payload is part of a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics educational program. It will study ant behavior in microgravity.
The experiment might bring to mind a classic Simpsons episode, but research indicates ants change how they communicate and forage for food based on the densities of their colonies. The experiment will compare the behavior of about 800 pavement ants in space to the behavior of a control group on Earth, said Stefanie Countryman, business development manager and education program director for BioServe Space Technologies.
BioServe is a NASA-funded center in CU-Boulder’s aerospace engineering sciences department and built both payloads. According to CU, BioServe has designed, built and flown microgravity life science research experiments on more than 40 space missions.
The launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia coast was originally planned to launch in December but was delayed by major winter storms and unexpected activity on the space station.
“It will definitely be a relief to see Cygnus get on its way to the ISS, especially with the recent delays spanning the holiday season,” Klaus said minutes before the launch.
While the flight is carrying experiments, it is primarily a resupply flight. NASA has scheduled seven commercial resupply missions to the space station this year. Two of the remaining missions will be flown by Orbital, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX flying the rest.