It would seem that the microbes aboard the International Space Station are “smarter” or more “clever” than the bacteria back home on Earth, due to their unusual ability to resist antibiotics by changing shape.
According to Phys.org, scientists from the University of Colorado in Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies had conducted an experiment, hoping to treat common E. coli bacteria strains on the ISS with varied concentrations of the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate. On Earth, this drug is powerful enough to kill the bacteria. But in space, the response was noticeably different, depending on the concentration of the antibiotic. There was, in fact, one instance where the bacteria had 13 times more cells and 73 percent less cell volume, in comparison to an Earthbound control group. Due to this increase in volume and decrease in size, the cultured bacteria was quickly dubbed by the scientists and media alike as “shape-shifting.”
“We knew bacteria behave differently in space and that it takes higher concentrations of antibiotics to kill them,” said BioServe research associate and study lead author Luis Zea in a statement quoted by Phys.org.
“What’s new is that we conducted a systematic analysis of the changing physical appearance of the bacteria during the experiments.”
The International Space Station’s bacteria strains are only able to nourish themselves through natural diffusion, due to the absence of buoyancy, sedimentation, and other characteristics based on gravity, Zea added. Furthermore, his team revealed that the bacterial cell envelope, which serves as a microbe’s outer membrane, was thicker in space, adding to the reasons why the E. coli strains aboard the ISS were more resistant to antibiotics. And in another peculiar note from the study, the bacteria had a tendency to grow in clumps, which the researchers believe might also involve a shell of outer cells that protects the inner cells from antibiotics.
Another key takeaway from the study, as noted by the Daily Mail, is that the International Space Station bacteria had produced outer membrane vesicles in some cases. These cell features can be used as tools for the cells to communicate with each other, and further beef up their resistance against antibiotics, according to Zea.
Commenting on his team’s study, Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences research professor Louis Stodieck said that the use of International Space Station bacteria for the study opens up a wealth of opportunities for developing new antibiotics, or new technologies that could protect astronauts and Earthbound people alike from resistant forms of bacteria.
“In space, for example, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in various cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking,” said Stodieck.
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]