Researchers in Israel plan to launch a mini–satellite lab carrying E. coli bacteria into space this week. They hope to gain a better understanding of how bacteria develop drug resistance.
A silicon chip will hold the bacteria in isolated chambers aboard the unmanned, 6-square-foot satellite. Some of the chambers will contain 10 million drug-resistant bacteria, while others will have the same amount of nonresistant bacteria.
Often, drug resistance develops when one strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria transfers the responsible genes to another strain. Research suggests near-zero gravity situations slow this process.
Two weeks after the launch, one of the team’s researchers, Dr. Ohad Gal-Mor, will use a computer to mix the two types of bacteria on the chip. He will virtually monitor how quickly the gene transfer that causes resistance occurs and then replicate the procedure with an identical chip on Earth for comparison, The Times of Israel reported.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill about 700,000 people a year. Some diseases that experts thought they had nearly eradicated, like tuberculosis and gonorrhea, developed resistance and are resurfacing. “In some cases, these infections are not only resistant to just one or two antimicrobial drugs, but sometimes they are resistant to multiple drugs … and in a growing number of cases are no longer treatable,” Gal-Mor said.
The researchers hope to learn how low-gravity inhibits the gene transfer, which could help scientists develop methods to slow the process on Earth. —J.B.