Sunday, December 2, 2007

Space Bacteria Will Slime You Harder

It sounded like a B-rated science fiction movie plot: Microbes Return From Space Three Times Deadlier Than On Earth.

Back in September, results were announced (and scientifically published) from an experiment where infectious Salmonella bacteria, sent on the shuttle and cultured in space for only 24 hours, then returned to earth, were three times more deadly to lab rats than their non-astrobacterial counterparts:

ABCNews audio article:

Yes, my antibacterial-soap-washing friends, don't handle uncooked chicken in space. Those buggers are trouble!

My latest issue of Scientific American has a great article on page 34 ("Deadly Orbits") about this case. The researchers, based at the University of Arizona, closely examined the bacteria and found that the space bacteria had much higher levels of an RNA-regulating protein, called Hfq. Hfq caused many key genes to activate, which made the bacteria more infectious.

But what turned on the Hfq? Micro-gravity? Gamma rays? Little green men? Galactus?

No, sorry, something much less impressive: "low-fluid-sheer". When Salmonella grow in an environment where there is little fluid sheer, or turbulence, such as in a glob of fluid floating in the weightless environment of space, a slowly-turning flask on Earth, or "sheltered corners of the digestive track", they form what is called a biofilm, a colony of bacteria that work together to protect themselves from antibiotics, soap, and the body's immune system, often creating the sort of slime that forms on your meat or, for other bacteria, on your shower doors, baby pacifiers, your teeth (plaque), or nasty bacterial infections. Thus formation of a biofilm makes them more deadly and harder to eliminate.

And what are the implications? Will the Salmonella quickly spread from space to your cutting board and become The Blob, oozing through your home and neighborhood to kill you and all your other non-vegetarian friends? No, but long-term astronauts may need to be more careful, and perhaps the medical community will be better able to treat bacteria that infect our gut.

I can see Hollywood going crazy with this: The shuttle returns to Earth, and a single bacterium from a space-borne biofilm, mutated in space, takes a ride on the shoe of an intrepid astronaut, then into some corner of a Cape Canaveral locker-room where it grows and divides until it spreads across the world, infecting and killing any living thing it comes in contact with, until the astronaut hero teams up with a sexy know-it-all blonde scientist and an awkward science geek to find a quick fix that kills all the bacteria for good.

You'd watch that, wouldn't you? No? What if I cast Bruce Willis as the astronaut? I think it would make a great "bio" film.

Image from HERE, altered for my amusement.


jangelo said...

Well, typically, I don't watch Bruce Willis films. But I could make an acception for this film. And since the writers are on strike, maybe this is your chance to move quickly as a free lance, low budget interprise!

Anonymous said...

If I dye my hair, can I be the sexy blond scientist?

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