NASA Put Dangerous Bacteria on a Satellite to Find Treatments for Future Space Travelers

The experiment NASA sent into space to test antibiotic resistance. NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

Traveling in space makes our immune systems weaker—and as if that weren't bad enough already, it might also make bacteria better able to resist the drugs we use to beat them back. That's why several NASA projects have focused on studying how bacteria behave in space. The newest such project is called EcAMSat and is now running after having been launched to the International Space Station earlier this month.

Onboard that satellite, which is about as large as a shoebox, are a bunch of microscopic critters called E. coli, an incredibly common bacterium that, under the right circumstances, can cause urinary tract infections. It's just one of the bacteria that can make life onboard the International Space Station—and any future spaceflight missions—uncomfortable.

Those E. coli were dormant for the launch itself, but the experiment, which runs basically by itself, is slowly waking them up by warming them up and feeding them. And there are two separate types of E. coli on board: one a basic variety and the other a variety that carries a natural gene that helps it defeat common antibiotic drugs.

Next, the set-up will expose the bacteria to antibiotics at a range of different doses and see how they fare. The experiment will measure bacteria survival by watching a dye included with the E. coli, which changes color from blue to pink as bacteria thrive. The whole thing weighs just 23 pounds and could fit in a backpack and doesn't need any cues from here on Earth to do its job.

The results will help scientists begin to understand just how much antibiotic is needed to stop an infection in space. EcAMSat is a pretty brief mission, with the satellite being destroyed within about a year and a half. But it is just one piece of NASA's ongoing effort to understand how bacteria behave differently in space than on the ground, in conjunction with their work studying how human bodies are affected by space travel.

Scientists know from studying astronauts who have visited the International Space Station that the steep reduction in gravity tends to interfere with our immune system, making humans more susceptible to bugs. But the same stress appears to give bacteria a leg up—and in conjunction with the antibiotic resistance that has been flourishing among all kinds of bacteria, that could be very bad news for future space travelers. EcAMSat is the first step to figuring out just how much existing medicine can even the playing field.