Scientists to Shoot a Bunch of Germs into Space, See What Happens


Hello, brave new world. This week, researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will send “an army of microorganisms into space” in an effort to learn how to prevent the spread of bacteria clusters that could pose a threat to the health of astronauts.

The Micro-2 experiment is scheduled to launch into orbit on May 14 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. The microorganisms will spend a [presumably rejuvenating] week in space before returning to Earth aboard the shuttle. Within just a few hours after the shuttle’s return, researchers will examine the bacteria and resulting biofilms to see how their growth and development were impacted by microgravity.

What’s scary and awesome and so ripe for a summer blockbuster about all of this is that scientists have evidence that germs in space can actually grow stronger. Salmonella brought along on a space voyage in September of 2006, for example, was three times more likely to sicken and kill mice than regular old earthbound salmonella.

“We know that gravity plays a key role in the development of biological systems, but we don’t know exactly how a lack of gravity affects the development of bacteria and biofilms,” said Cynthia Collins, who’s leading the experiment. “This means while certain bacteria may be harmless on Earth, they could pose a health threat to astronauts on the International Space Station or, one day, long space flights.”

Or, if we were in a classic Twilight Zone episode, the bacteria sent on this voyage could very well come back and overpower us hapless humans, or at least take us to its leader and then probably cook us in a nice stew for dinner.

But in the meantime, let’s just pat ourselves on the back (with a well-Purelled hand) for the amazing advances of 2010. We’ve come a long way since sending pigs into space. And, if you’ve gotta go, death by giant omnipotent space germ would at least make for an exciting story.