Astronaut Fred Haise was a long way from home when he became sick with an infection caused by an opportunistic pathogen known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa while aboard the Apollo 13 mission to the Moon in 1970. Now, more than four decades later, this same bacterium is central to an important discovery by scientists using human spaceflight research to unlock the mysteries of how disease-causing agents work and can be controlled.

Astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, STS-115 mission specialist, works with the Group Activation Packs (GAP) on the mid-deck of Space Shuttle Atlantis. (NASA)
Recent space research is giving scientists a better understanding of how infectious disease occurs in space, and could someday improve astronaut health and provide novel treatments for people on Earth.

Scientists studying Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which flew aboard the shuttle en route to the International Space Station (ISS), hope to unlock the mysteries of how disease-causing agents work. They believe the research can lead to advanced vaccines and therapies to better fight infections. The findings are based on flight experiments with microbial pathogens on NASA shuttle missions to the ISS.

Healthy people can have Pseudomonas aeruginosa live in their bodies without getting sick, but it poses a serious threat to people with compromised immune systems. This bacterium is the leading cause of death for those suffering from cystic fibrosis and is a serious risk to burn victims. However, a high enough dosage of Salmonella typhimurium always makes even healthy individuals sick.

The initial MICROBE study in 2006, and the follow-on Immune Space Tissue Loss experiment on Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-131 mission, show that spaceflight creates a low fluid shear environment, where liquids exert little force as they flow over the surface of cells. The low fluid shear environment of spaceflight affects the molecular genetic regulators that can make microbes more infectious. These same regulators might function in a similar way to regulate microbial virulence during the course of infection in the human body.

For more information, visit www.nasa.gov/topics/shuttle_station/features/pseudomonas.html.

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