Another danger for astronauts: Super bacteria

Bacteria living zero-gravity environments become more virulent. People living in zero-gravity environments have less-than-fully-functional immune systems. The result is a danger for space travelers that few of us on Earth ever think about — even though a lot of early astronauts, right up through the Apollo program, suffered severe infections in flight, or shortly after landing. Ed Yong's article for Wired UK from 2011 is a reminder that there's a lot of details that need to be worked out before humanity can become a space-faring species. We've got more worry about up there than just radiation.


  1. Yep.  My contact in the future tells me that the zombie plague of 2017 comes from one of the first space tourists.  Dang you, Branson!

  2. As a microbiologist, I find the data suggesting that bacteria become more virulent (cause more dangerous infections) in space to be very unconvincing.  I wrote a RRResearch blog post about it in April 2011.
    There’s also has no logical foundation for this result.  Bacteria have no way to sense gravity at all.

    1. No, but the body certainly is affected by gravity. It is designed to pump and move fluids around in a world with gravity. Without it, those things don’t work the same or as well. Fluids tend to concentrate in the upper body, and the body interprets this as a problem and tries to dehydrate itself. The body also produces fewer red and white blood cells.

      Bacteria are not virulent in a vacuum (Ha! Space joke!) – they operate in an environment. Change that environment, and the behavior changes.

      1. But surely that is the fault of a depressed immune system, not because the bacteria are stronger, yes?

    1. Cool, more space for the rest of us. Once I have some kids, I’d be happy to live even a few short years in space.

        1.  Subjectively shorter because I’d be having so much fun. Also, there’s no guaruntee I’ll get picked for one of the hyperdrive experiments that causes my DNA to mutate into the perfect species a la Voyager

  3. Seems like there’s a pretty simple solution to this one – start building spinnable ships and stations so people can live in artificial gravity up there.  It wouldn’t require that much more material, just tether two modules together a long distance apart and rotate them around a common central point.  Presto- gravitized living spaces.  Wouldn’t require energy for upkeep – you could have a docking module in the center with tunnels going out to the ends.  Why aren’t they doing this already?

  4. Very interesting article, but does it bug anyone else when they put on their feminist glasses? The main scientist they discuss is “feisty” (a word I’ve never seen applied to a 40-something professional man) was taught “how to think mechanically and mathematically” by a male “friend” (not colleague) while she taught him “about genes and bacteria” (so he taught her how to think, she passed on a body of knowledge).

    There are other issues, but I’ll stop there. Still a good article, but I think sometimes it’s easier to bring good up to great with a little awareness or criticism. There have been a number of posts here about how women scientists are viewed, and sometimes I wonder whether a friendly reminder to people who are clearly trying is more helpful than railing against stubbornly ignorant people. Of course, the trick is having it come off as friendly, and not haranguing…

  5. I wonder how many of those early infections were caused by severely limited sanitary facilities. Imagine spending eight days in the front seat of a car with two other full-grown men, either using diapers or pooping in a plastic bag that used adhesive to secure itself around your anus. That was what going to the moon was like. 

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