Previous experiments conducted in space have shown that under certain conditions, bacteria can grow to larger numbers and need more drugs to be killed in space with respect to how they behave on Earth. Why is this? Is it because they become "resistant" to antibiotics, or these are less "effective" in killing bugs? Can we use this knowledge in our fight against drug-resistant bacteria on Earth?
Biofilms are groups of bacteria or fungi that stick together and to a surface. We can see them in our bathroom tiles or even on our teeth (that's why we brush!), but they are a bigger problem than that, as a large percent of infectious pathogens (microorganisms that can get us sick) use biofilms to become more virulent (have an improved ability to cause disease) and can become resistant to antibiotics when they grow in biofilms. This problem is especially true in hospitals. Biofilms also form in spacecraft, potentially degrading materials and increasing the risk of disease among astronauts. How do biofilms form in space? Do the molecules that 'make them tick' operate differently in the microgravity environment of space? Are there materials that can be 'biofilm resistant'? Can biofilms that grow in space teach us new ways to fight them on Earth?
Humans will soon explore, live, and work on the Moon and Mars. How do microbes behave when they grow at those gravities (the Moon has about on sixth of Earth gravitational pull, while Mars has about a third)? Will we need different doses of antibiotics to fight a bacterial infections depending on where (Earth, lower Earth orbit, the Moon or Mars) they are occurring? What changes at the molecular level under each of these environments? Do the genes associated with resistance to antibiotics or the microbes' ability to cause disease change depending on the gravitational environment? Micro- (as astronauts currently experience on board the International Space Station), Lunar, and Martian gravities are simulated using a device called Clinostat, which doesn't remove the gravitational pull of Earth but allows scientists to replicate some aspects of the environment around cells at different gravitational environments.
Humans will once again venture to the Moon and eventually, beyond. While the region of space where the International Space Station orbits is partially protected from space radiation by our planet’s magnetosphere, astronauts going to the Moon will be exposed to galactic cosmic rays and solar radiation. Because neither humans, or for that matter, any terrestrial life forms have experienced long-term exposure these environments, we don’t yet fully understand how such radiation affects biological systems. This experiment, planned to launch around the Moon on NASA's Artemis 1 mission, aims to address these scientific questions.
Imagine a future where Earth is a zone reserved for living, and heavy industries and mining has moved off-world. Space mining can in fact, not only contribute to this, but it can enable human establishment far away from Earth. While this scenario may be far in the future, the only way to make it a reality is to start working on it. In space, virtually limitless resources exist of some of the 44 ‘endangered elements,’ chemical species that will face supply limitations on Earth in the coming years. While physicochemical processes are being investigated to mine these resources elsewhere, we focus on assessing the feasibility of using bacteria. This approach, called biomining, is currently used on Earth – for example, 15% and 5% of the copper and gold mined on Earth is done via biological systems.