Space trip gave germs big boost, study finds

WASHINGTON – It sounds like the plot for a scary B-movie: Germs go into space on a rocket and come back stronger and deadlier than ever.

Except, it really happened.

The germ: Salmonella, best known as a culprit of food poisoning.

The trip: Space Shuttle STS-115, September 2006.

The reason: Scientists wanted to see how space travel affects germs, so they took some along – carefully wrapped.

The result: Mice fed the space germs were three times more likely to get sick and died quicker than others fed identical germs that stayed on Earth.

“Wherever humans go, microbes go, you can’t sterilize humans. … It’s important that we understand … how they’re going to change,” explained Cheryl Nickerson, an associate professor at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University.

Nickerson added, in a telephone interview, that learning more about changes in germs has the potential to lead to new countermeasures for infectious disease.

She reports the results of the salmonella study in today’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers found 167 genes had changed in the space salmonella. Why?

“That’s the $64 million dollar,” Nickerson said. “We do not know with 100 percent certainty what the mechanism is of spaceflight that’s inducing these changes.”

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