Researchers will send fungi into space for an experiment that may help change how medicines are produced.
Researchers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of Southern California (USC) hope that the environment at the International Space Station (ISS) marked by low gravity and high radiation would stress the fungi to develop new characteristics that have not yet been observed on Earth.
Fungi make useful medicines when they are stressed out. Penicillin and other drugs, for instance, come from secondary metabolites of fungi. These are side products that the organisms do not need for everyday survival but they produce under stressful conditions.
"In nature, fungi only make what they need to respond to their environment," said Clay Wang, from the USC School of Pharmacy. "These pathways are like a set of tools or weapons in their arsenal, and most of the time they are not in use."
The researchers believe the harsh environment on the ISS, which orbits about 200 miles above Earth, could trigger fungi response that might create a compound that can help fight diseases such as cancer and osteoporosis, or may help reduce the cost of medicine production.
Wang cited how conditions in space can prompt the fungus strain Aspergillus nidulans to produce molecules it would not otherwise create when it is in a less stressful environment. Based on research, molecules from Aspergillus nidulans have potential use as treatment for cancer, fungal infection and Alzheimer's disease.
"We've done extensive genetic analysis of this fungus and found that it could potentially produce 40 different types of drugs," Wang said. "The organism is known to produce osteoporosis drugs, which is very important from an astronaut's perspective because we know that in space travel, astronauts experience bone loss."
Four different strains of Aspergillius nidulans will be sent to space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, which is set for launch on April 8. These will be brought back to Earth on May 10 as the actual experiment will last only up to seven days.
The experiment called Micro-10 will also allow NASA to learn more about making medicines for long-term space missions such as the planned manned Mars mission in 2030. The space agency needs to have self-sustaining measures to keep astronauts healthy during long space journeys