The real Andromeda Strain? Space Shuttle scientists breed virulent Salmonella strain in space and inadvertently strengthen the case for the International Space Station

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Wednesday, September 26, 2007

There I go again, nattering on about the dangers of spaceflight. Laugh if you will, but this is pretty interesting: Salmonella bacteria grown aboard the space shuttle turned out to be more harmful to its hosts — "virulent," for all the microbiology geeks out there. Salmonella is a leading cause of food poisoning in humans.

Stock up on surgical masks. SARS and Swine Flu, stand aside. The REAL Andromeda Strain is here.

In Michael Crichton's 1971 science-fiction thriller, The Andromeda Strain, a satellite crashes to Earth carrying an alien microorganism. The space bug proceeds to turn people's blood into sand. Brilliant, selfless scientists rush to the rescue, lots of alarms and flashing red lights go off, isolation doors slam shut dramatically, nuclear bombs enter the plot, yada, yada, yada. The human race is saved.

In the Salmonella Apocalypse scenario, the human race doesn't perish. It experiences a very bad collective bout of food poisoning — a tsunami of vomiting heard ‘round the world.

OK, enough with the jokes for a minute. Time to explain the science.

Researchers from Arizona State University exposed Salmonella bacteria to spaceflight aboard space shuttle Atlantis is 2006. At the same time, they grew the same bacteria back on Earth under identical conditions.

After the flight, the researchers infected animals with the Salmonella and found bacteria flown in space were almost three times more likely to cause disease than the bacteria grown on Earth's surface. Apparently the experience of spaceflight caused physical changes in the bacteria, perhaps making them less vulnerable to animals' immune defenses.

This research gives us a few points to ponder.

One, there is still a lot we don't know about the effects of spaceflight on living creatures.

Two, maybe the International Space Station is not totally useless, as some critics contend, because it offers a platform to continue these types of studies in the future. We can learn more about possible hazards of spaceflight and, in general, learn more about biology.

Three, when will people in the media stop leading off their science coverage with hackneyed references to science-fiction films?

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