Volume: 01, Issue: 18 12/03/2003 
A false-color micrograph of the disease-causing microbe salmonella. Image courtesy Avinash Abhyankar at http://www.geocities.com/avinash_abhyankar/biocharacters.htm.
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Other Articles in This Issue:
Stardust Pinpoints Where the Wild Thing Is
Dreaming of a Red Christmas
California 17-Year-Old Launches Attempt to be First Teenager in Space
NASA Successfully Tests Ion Engine
Chat Online about the Centennial of Flight with Dr. Jack Bacon
 

The Microbial Menace from Space

What happens to a disease-causing microbe in a microgravity environment? If that microbe is the food-borne pathogen salmonella, it becomes more virulent, which may be bad news for astronauts whose immune systems are already weakened by the weightlessness.

A microgravity environment, such as the one found on the International Space Station, can have surprising effects on a living organism. NASA, as well as other space agencies, explore these differences as deeply as possible in the hopes that they can not only shed light on how life works in space, but also here on Earth. One of the ways NASA is investigating these effects is through the Group Activation Packs (GAP) Yeast Experiment.

As normal human cells grow and replicate, they form complex colonies of fibers, proteins, and other structures that make up living tissue. Studying this mechanism outside the human body is difficult, however, because cells do not easily associate to form these cellular colonies outside living organisms.

Most cells cultivated in a lab form flat, thin specimens that offer only limited insight into the way cells work together. Scientists were excited, therefore, to discover that cells grown in microgravity—the low-gravity environment inside spacecraft orbiting the Earth—much more closely resemble those found in human bodies.

Partnering with BioServe Space Technologies, NASA scientists study yeast cells, which are eukaryotic cells—cells that contain a distinct nucleus bound by a cell membrane. Yeast cells are simple compared to our own cells, and have a well-characterized, much smaller genome. In fact, the entire genome of the yeast cell is known, and significantly similar to several infectious species, even if it is not pathogenic itself. This will make it easier for scientists to study how microgravity is altering the cells' makeup and potential their function—research that will have an impact on our understanding of all living organisms.

To learn more about how NASA plans to study microbes in microgravity, visit Science@NASA at:
http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2003/01dec_yeast.htm?list1003452

For more information about BioServe Space Technologies and the GAP Yeast Experiment, visit:
http://www.colorado.edu/engineering/BioServe/spaceflight.html

    
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