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Bacteria Behave Differently In Space

Researchers from CU Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies have found that Earth bacteria behave in unexpected ways in outer space. They tried culturing E. coli on the International Space Station; different concentrations of gentamicin sulfate were used to see if the antibiotic takes care of the "infection" like it does on Earth.

The response of the cultured bacteria included a 13-fold increase in cell numbers and a 73 percent reduction in cell volume size compared to an Earth control group, said BioServe Research Associate Luis Zea, lead study author.

“We knew bacteria behave differently in space and that it takes higher concentrations of antibiotics to kill them,” said Zea. “What’s new is that we conducted a systematic analysis of the changing physical appearance of the bacteria during the experiments.”

Because there are no gravity-driven forces in space like buoyancy and sedimentation, the only way the ISS bacteria can ingest nutrients or drugs is through natural diffusion, said Zea. The large decrease of the bacteria cell surface in space also decreases the rate of molecule-cell interaction, which may have implications for more effectively treating astronauts with bacterial infections in space.

The new study also showed the bacterial cell envelope—essentially its cell wall and outer membrane—became thicker, likely protecting the bacteria even more from the antibiotic, said Zea. The E. coli bacteria grown in space also tended to form in clumps, perhaps a defensive maneuver of sorts that may involve a shell of outer cells protecting the inner cells from antibiotics, said Zea.

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling wrote about something similar in his 1985 novel Schismatrix. He called them "sours":

humanity and its symbionts had thrown aside the blanket of atmosphere...The circumlunar worlds had shields of imported lunar rubble whole meters deep, but they could not escape the bursts of solar flares and the random shots of backshots of cosmic radiation.

Without bacteria, the soil was a lifeless heap of imported lunar dust. With them, it was a constant mutational hazard.

The Republic struggled to control its Sours...Mutant fungi had spread like oil slicks, forming a mycelial crust beneath the surface of the soil

Via University of Colorado.

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