SpaceX is blasting a superbug into orbit

Perhaps concerned that life on Earth isn’t quite interesting enough, SpaceX’s next move will be to do something that you imagine a wise old scientist in a science-fiction movie would advise against, before being overruled and watching everything go to hell. In a break from the usual flowers and chocolates, this Valentine’s Day Elon Musk’s private space company will be sending a lethal, antibiotic-resistant superbug into orbit.

The reasoning for this is actually far more humanitarian than that description sounds. The hope is that by sending Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) for a holiday on the International Space Station, scientists will be able to see the bug’s next move before it happens on Earth, giving us a head start in figuring out how to deal with it on terra firma.

It might seem counter-intuitive to think that just being off of Earth’s surface will result in faster growth for bacteria, but there is a precedent for it. While there’s no guarantee that MRSA bacteria will behave in this way, it’s clear that it works for other bacteria, as a 2015 paper explained: “There is general agreement that microgravity represents the major influence on bacterial growth kinetics and bacterial cell behaviour during short orbital flights, although radiation may increase microbial mutation rates during flight.” This has been known for some time – a 2000 paper revealed that a cloned bacterial gene carried by yeast onboard the Mir had mutated two to three times more than the same samples did on Earth.methicillin-resistant_staphylococcus_aureus_mrsa_iss_nasa_experiment

If the MRSA bacteria goes similarly hog-wild on its Space Station vacation, then that’s brilliant news for us, because it’s like peeking into the future of what lies ahead on Earth. Instead of having to wait for our current medications to become ineffective before we try to find an alternative, we should theoretically get to see the bug’s next move, and have new medicines ready for when the Earth-bound MRSA catches up with its space cousin.

That would be a huge success. Antibiotic resistance is likely to prove a huge problem in the coming decades, and MRSA is one of our current worst offenders. It may seem counter-intuitive to try and fast-track a disease that currently kills more than 20,000 Americans every year, but knowing what’s around the corner is a potentially lethal secret weapon of our own.

Images: NIAID and NASA used under Creative Commons

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