The U.S. space agency has sent CubeSat with samples of bacteria into low-Earth orbit to find out what would happen to astronauts who get sick in space.

Through the E. coli Anti-Microbial Satellite or EcAMSat, a NASA small satellite experiment, researchers will study how antibiotics can effectively combat E.coli bacteria in low gravity.

Antibiotic Resistance On Earth And In Space

Bacteria onboard the International Space Station have already been observed to shift shape. Researchers said that bacteria may get smaller in microgravity to make them more susceptible to antibiotics.

Scientists think that bacteria such as the E.coli experience stress in microgravity and this sets off a defense mechanism that make it more difficult for antibiotics to fight them. Bacteria on Earth also behave similarly by developing resistance to an antibiotic.

The experimental module contained inside EcAMSat stores antibiotic, nutrients, a special dye and waste that are connected through a series of tubes to a microfluidics card, which stores the small pool of liquid that contained the E.coli bacteria. The strains used in the experiment are those that cause urinary tract infections.

The bacteria are dormant but these will be awakened when flooded with a nutrient-rich fluid. The spacecraft will adjust the temperature of the container similar to that of the human body and inject the bacteria samples with varying amounts of antibiotic.

The experiment will compare two types of E. coli. One has a gene that can make it resistant to antibiotics and the other has no such gene.

The bacteria will be mixed with a color-changing dye. A dye that remains blue means that most of the cells died as a result of the antibiotic treatment. The cells are still viable and active after treatment when the color of the dye changes from blue to pink.

A color sensor onboard the tiny shoebox-sized satellite will detect these changes and determine how these two types of E.coli resist different doses of antibiotic. Data gathered will be transmitted via radio to Earth.

Potential Applications

Results of the study may allow scientists to determine the ideal dosage of medicine needed to combat such infections in space. NASA said that a better understanding of how E.coli respond to antibiotics in space may also lead to more effective treatment of infections on Earth.

"Beyond low-Earth orbit, the compounding human health effects of microgravity and space radiation will require more knowledge about how biology reacts to the space environment," said Stevan Spremo, from NASA's Ames Research Center.

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