Bacteria shapeshift in space to be more resistant to drugs

Researchers found certain bacteria are more resistant in space.

A team from CU Boulder's BioServe Space Technologies discovered that some bacterial cells 'shapeshift' in space to survive the attacks from common medications that successfully kill them on Earth.

They say the results of their study raise concern about how bacteria behave not just for astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS), but for people on Earth as well.

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E. coli. sample cultured on Earth (left) and E. coli. sample cultured in the International Space Station (right). Rather than being killed off by the drugs, the bacteria in space responded with a 73 percent reduction in cell volume size while growing the cell envelope to protect it

E. coli. sample cultured on Earth (left) and E. coli. sample cultured in the International Space Station (right). Rather than being killed off by the drugs, the bacteria in space responded with a 73 percent reduction in cell volume size while growing the cell envelope to protect it

THE STUDY 

The team designed an experiment to culture common E. coli bacteria on the ISS and treat it to see how it responded.

They administered seven different variations of the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate, which kills them on Earth.

But rather than being killed off by the drugs, the bacteria responded with a 13-fold increase in cell numbers and a 73 percent reduction in cell volume size.

The cell envelope - which contains the cell wall and outer membrane - became thicker, too.

Similarly to how, in space, E. coli grows in clumps as a defense tactic, Zea believes the cell membrane grew to protect the bacteria from the drug.

Additionally, some of the bacteria produced outer membrane vesicles, which act as messengers cells can use to communicate with each other. 

'We knew bacteria behave differently in space and that it takes higher concentrations of antibiotics to kill them,' said BioServe Research Associate Luis Zea, lead study author.

'What's new is that we conducted a systematic analysis of the changing physical appearance of the bacteria during the experiments.' 

The team designed an experiment to culture common E. coli bacteria on the ISS and treat it to see how it responded.

They administered seven different variations of the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate, which kills them on Earth.

But rather than being killed off by the drugs, the bacteria responded with a 13-fold increase in cell numbers and a 73 percent reduction in cell volume size.

The cell envelope - which contains the cell wall and outer membrane -  became thicker, too.

Similarly to how, in space, E. coli grows in clumps as a defense tactic, Zea believes the cell membrane grew to protect the bacteria from the drug.

E. Coli growth by cell count, where black bars represent spaceflight samples and gold bars are Earth samples. The analysis showed the the bacteria in space responded with a 13-fold increase in cell numbers

E. Coli growth by cell count, where black bars represent spaceflight samples and gold bars are Earth samples. The analysis showed the the bacteria in space responded with a 13-fold increase in cell numbers

Additionally, some of the bacteria produced outer membrane vesicles, which act as messengers cells can use to communicate with each other. 

'Both the increase in cell envelope thickness and in the outer membrane vesicles may be indicative of drug resistance

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