SpaceX is preparing to launch a lethal, antibiotic-resistant superbug into orbit on February 14, to live its days in the microgravity environment of the International Space Station.
The idea is not to weaponise space with MRSA – a bacterium that kills more Americans every year than HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, emphysema, and homicide combined – but to send its mutation rates into hyperdrive, allowing scientists to see the pathogen’s next moves well before they appear on Earth.
The NASA-funded study will see SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launch colonies of MRSA into space, to be cultivated in the US National Laboratory on the International Space Station.
The device will be used on the International Space Station to evaluate how bacterial mutations of two strains of MRSA respond to the microgravity environment.
A 2000 experiment found that after 40 days aboard Mir – a Russian space station that operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001 – mutation rates for a cloned bacterial gene inserted into yeast were up to three times higher than the control group back on Earth.
Another study from 1999 found that certain strains of E. coli had high mutation frequencies after a trip into space, but the types and frequencies varied widely depending on their conditions.
If Goel’s hunch is right, and space really does put MRSA into overdrive, it’ll basically be like seeing all of your opponent’s moves in advance when you’re playing a game of chess.