The weightlessness of outer space can make germs even nastier, increasing the dangers astronauts face, researchers say.
These findings, as well as research to help reduce these risks, are part of the ongoing projects at the International Space Station that use microgravity to reveal secrets about microbes.
"We seek to unveil novel cellular and molecular mechanisms related to infectious disease progression that cannot be observed here on Earth, and to translate our findings to novel strategies for treatment and prevention," said microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute. Nickerson detailed these findings on Monday (Feb. 18) at the annual meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science in Boston.
In space, researchers encounter greatly reduced levels of gravity, often erroneously referred to as zero gravity. This near-weightlessness can have a number of abnormal effects on astronauts, such as causing muscle and bone loss.
Although microgravity can distort normal biology, conventional procedures for studying microbes on Earth can cause their own distortions.
Experiments on Earth often involve whirling cells around to keep them from settling downward in a clump due to gravity. However, the physical force generated by the movement of fluid over cell surfaces causes great changes to the way cells act. This property, known as fluid shear, influences a broad range of cell behaviors, and the shear that experiments on Earth introduce could twist results.more