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What Does Space Do To Your Microbiome?

Nobody wants E. coli on a trip to Mars

Not the best place to get diarrhea. (NASA)
smithsonian.com

The microbiome—the collection of microbes that live on and in your body—is, increasingly, absorbing scientists' attention. Not only does your microbiome seem to regulate much of your body's internal workings, it can also determine how healthy you are, regulate your behavior and even impact your kids. So what happens when you take that delicate ecosystem and launch it into space? 

That’s exactly what the Astronaut Microbiome is trying to figure out. Aviva Hope Rutkin at New Scientist explains:

A team led by Hernan Lorenzi at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, will take saliva, blood and stool samples from nine astronauts before, during and after a six-month stint aboard the ISS to find out what actually happens to their microbiome in space. The team suspects that astronauts may lose certain microbes that they rely on to stay healthy, leaving them more susceptible to opportunistic infections.

Along with the testing on humans, scientists are trying to figure out how the microbes that might hurt us are impacted by space. One study is looking at whether E. coli is more or less susceptible to antibiotics in microgravity. Another is watching Salmonella infect roundworms in space to see whether the disease behaves differently. And the team has already published a study on how Salmonella seems to get more virulent in space.

As NASA considers longer and longer spaceflights, these questions are increasingly relevant to the future human experience of space. Because nobody wants E. coli on a trip to Mars. 

About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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