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One of the more exciting things to happen in my life was when the last shuttle flight carried an experiment of mine to the International Space Station. There astronauts grew the bacterium, Streptococcus pneumoniae to study how the bacterium responds in space. On earth it can cause pneumonia and middle ear infections.

I hope you designed itty bitty space suits for them, Dave.

Very funny. Actually, we know very little about how living organisms react in space. For bacteria, there is evidence they grow faster and produce disease more easily.

That's pretty scary stuff if you are an astronaut heading off on a two and a half year mission to Mars. A 2001 study by the National Academy of Sciences found the risks to human health on long missions beyond earth's orbit is the greatest challenge to man space exploration.

One challenge is the effects of space radiation which can cause mutations in our DNA and lead to cancer. Large doses can have direct effects on the heart and respiratory systems. It can also cause the production of cataracts and blistering of the skin and vomiting.

Another problem is microgravity's effect on our bones and muscles. Without the weight bearing activities that stimulate our bones, humans can lose 1-2 percent of bone mass each month!

Like my Aunt Edna without her Fosamax.

Well, sort of but on a more massive scale. Plus - muscles atrophy and that's why you see astronauts exercising on the Shuttle and in the space station.

There's also good evidence our immune system becomes impaired after extended time in space. This makes astronauts vulnerable to infectious microbes like Streptococcus pneumoniae which is a threat to those with poor immune systems. Do you now see the connection with the experiment?

Absolutely. It is clear more research is needed for astronauts to travel to Mars and to safely return.

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For more information…

Life into Space: Space Life Sciences Research - 1965-2005 Vol. I, II, III
"Life into Space is an overview of space life sciences research conducted by NASA Ames Research Center and Kennedy Space Center. The 35+ years of research are made accessible for general readers and specialists, alike."
For more information…

Streptococcus pneumoniae Expression of Genes in Space (SPEGIS)
&qout;Streptococcus pneumoniae Expression of Gene in Space (SPEGIS) will examine the behavior and growth of bacteria in microgravity and investigate the effects of the space environment on the gene expression, protein production, and virulence of the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae. The data collected will also provide insight on what types of bacterial infections may occur during long-duration space missions and the risks to crew members."
For more information…

Safe Passage: Astronaut Care for Exploration-Missions
"Space travel is inherently risky. From the early days of orbital flight through the longer-duration missions first on the Russian space station MIR and now an the International Space Station (ISS), a number of health hazards have been identified; the loss of bone calcium, radiation exposure, and difficulty in behavioral adaptation to confined living conditions are a few of the most serious."
For more information…

 
 

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