Why mutant microbes are the most dangerous monsters in space

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Jun 18, 2017, 6:35 PM EDT (Updated)

In space, no one can hear you scream—and no one can see the monsters assaulting you from the inside out.

Unlike the highly obvious chest-bursting Xenomorphs in Alien, mutant microbes are a grim reality for astronauts and whatever they bring back to Earth.

Microgravity is thought to be the culprit behind such micro-monstrosities. Exposure to the near-absence of gravity that makes astronauts almost weightless outside the Earth’s atmosphere also warps the DNA of bacteria like e.coli and salmonella. Another bacterium, Pseudomonas aeruginosa (as if that name alone isn’t nightmarish enough), mutates like a Shoggoth in space. At least 12 different mutations were identified in a study recently published in NJP Microgravity.

Even more Lovecraftian is how these things breed. Space must provide some sort of supercharged environment, because the microbes multiply at warp speed and level up their strength when spawning in microgravity. How exactly bacterial superpowers emerge from the lack of gravity is not yet clear to scientists. Whether the mutations are significant individually or somehow conspiring boosting the bacteria’s advantage is also still murky. What we do know is that they accumulate into an infectious ooze called biofilm, aka the ultimate biohazard, with increased biomass and a menacing “column-and-canopy” structure that has never seen through any microscope on Earth.

E.coli mutants from a recent simulation experiment. 


Now for the really scary science. Experiments have proven that reintroducing the space versions of these Monsters Inside Me stars to unaffected strains will embed the mutations into multi-generational genes. Biologist Madhan Tirumalai led a research team that investigated the permanent changes transferred from generation to generation by simulating an environment with nearly zero gravity for them to be exposed to as they multiplied. 1,000 generations later, they were reintroduced to an unaffected colony. Genetic analysis on the mutated e.coli revealed at least sixteen permanent mutations.

Astronauts on extended missions are at the most risk, because you just can’t know what hitched a ride with you on your rocket and is mutating out of sight. If they bring back anything that isn’t—or can’t be—disinfected with the wrath of a thousand suns, then the atrocities could end up crawling onto our planet. The more resistant bacteria are a serious potential health threat to the spacebound and earthbound alike. At least these monstrous microorganisms aren’t indestructible when attacked by antibiotics. Yet.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for anyone reading this within 3 hours of eating.

(via Gizmodo)