Microgravity, MRSA and rockets

By Laura Mize • Published: June 21st, 2017
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

For a while earlier this year, a small sampling of a potentially deadly, antibiotic-resistant superbug occupied a coveted spot in the super-sterile world of the International Space Station, 220 miles above Earth. And it was sent there on purpose.

In February, Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket brought the MRSA sample to the station as part of an experiment led by a team of Harvard University researchers. The lead scientist believes the microgravity in space can act as an accelerator, which could give researchers a sneak preview of what MRSA’s genetic mutations will look like in the future. Scientists can then use this information to build smarter drugs back on Earth to fight it.

A vital aspect of the experiment is to learn how MRSA becomes resistant to antibiotics. While most MRSA infections aren’t serious, when MRSA enters a hospital setting it can become deadly. MRSA’s ability to mutate rapidly and unpredictably means it frustrates scientists’ ability to develop drugs that kill it.

An estimated 72,000 people in the United States developed an invasive MRSA infection in 2014, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, MRSA kills more Americans than AIDS, many of them children, the CDC reports.

If this out-of-this-world experiment proves worthwhile, it could pave the way for studies of other dangerous pathogens and help scientists create targeted cures they’ll eventually need to kill the ever-changing MRSA superbug.

That could turn out to be one small step for space-traveling bacteria, one potentially giant leap for mankind.