Bacteria are able to shape-shift, resist antibiotics in space

This could be another defensive measure that uses the outer cells to protect the inner cells from the antibiotics.
By Adam Widmer | Sep 14, 2017
Scientists aboard the International Space Station have discovered that bacteria in space are able to undergo a number of physical changes that help them resist antibiotics they cannot survive on Earth.

Regardless of precautions, humans are going to bring bacteria out into space. As a result, scientists want to learn as much about the microorganisms as possible.

In the recent study, a team ofresearchers with CU Boulder's BioServe Space Technologies exposed cultures of E. coli bacteria to different doses of the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate. While the drug easily kills the bacteria on Earth, in space it caused the bacterial cells to undergo a13-fold increase and triggered a 73 percent reduction in total cell volume size.

Such shape-shifting is unique, and is likely the reason the organisms can survive much better in space. The decrease in cell surface area lowers the rate foreign molecules can interact with it, which then makes the bacteria more resistant to outside substances. In addition, the cell walls also grew thicker to provide more protection.

Researchers also noted that the bacteria grew in clumps. This could be another defensive measure that uses the outer cells to protect the inner cells from the antibiotics.

"Both the increase in cell envelope thickness and in the outer membrane vesicles may be indicative of drug resistance mechanisms being activated in the spaceflight samples," said lead author Luis Zea, a microbiologist at UC Boulder, according to Gizmodo. "And this experiment and others like it give us the opportunity to better understand how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics here on Earth."

This is the first time scientists have tracked such changes in bacteria after exposing them to antibiotics. Such research provides new insights into the way the microorganisms resist drugs and may help researchers figure out ways to thwart that adaptability.

"The low gravity of space provides a unique test bed for developing new techniques, products and processes that can benefit not only astronauts, but also people on Earth," said study co-author Louis Stodieck, a research professor in the Ann and H.J. Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences, according to Phys.org. "In space, for example, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in various cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking."

The new findings are published in a recent issue of theFrontiers in Microbiology.

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