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Friday, March 13, 2009

Space Station Research Could Help Prevent, Treat Food Poisoning

Bug Busters -- Space Station Research Could Help Prevent, Treat Food Poisoning03.11.09
Astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, STS-115 mission specialist, works with the Yeast-Group Activation Packs on the middeck of space shuttle Atlantis. Image Credit: NASA
Germs are virtually everywhere on Earth and it’s natural that they would stow away for the ride into space when humans go there. New NASA research shows some of those germs, or microbes, are more infectious after spending time in “zero-gravity.”

While that may sound like a bad thing – and certainly it is a challenge that needs to be met to keep astronauts healthy – there is a silver lining. Using spaceflight studies to understand the mechanism for this increased virulence could help us develop new strategies for fighting the spread of such disease-causing microbes here on Earth.

"This research opens up new areas for investigations that may improve food treatment, develop new therapies and vaccines to combat food poisoning in humans here on Earth, and protect astronauts on orbit from infectious disease," said Julie Robinson, program scientist for the International Space Station.

Experiments with Salmonella were flown on shuttle missions to the International Space Station in September 2006 and March 2008. The 2006 experiment surprisingly showed that the spaceflight environment causes a short-term alteration in Salmonella virulence. The 2008 experiment demonstrated that a change in growth media controls the virulence effect. There is no evidence that the space-grown bacteria sustain these effects long-term upon return to Earth.

Cheryl Nickerson, a scientist at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, led a research team that investigated the importance of the microbial growth medium to gene expression and virulence during spaceflight. Image Credit: The Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University
Salmonella is a leading cause of food poisoning and related illnesses, and their unpleasant effects on our digestive systems are well documented. In the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 1.4 million non-typhoidal Salmonella infections resulted in 168,000 doctor’s office visits annually from 1996–1999. Salmonella infections caused 15,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths in each of those years. Recently, Salmonella has been in the news as the agent responsible for infectious disease outbreaks in the U.S. linked to contaminated food products like peanut butter that have sickened thousands of individuals and caused several fatalities.

Bacteria like Salmonella use an amazing array of techniques to outwit the human body’s defense mechanisms and cause illness. By changing their gene expression, they adapt to different environments to alter their disease-causing potential or virulence.

Although the study of factors related to microbial virulence is now well advanced, many key pieces of the puzzle still are missing. Cheryl Nickerson, a researcher in the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, led the team that investigated the effect of spaceflight on Salmonella on both space flights. The 2006 experiment was the first to identify the molecular “switch” that activates the increased the virulence of Salmonella caused by spaceflight. The follow-up experiment in 2008 showed that adjusting the ion content of the bacteria’s growth medium can be used to turn off the increase in Salmonella virulence observed in space. Nickerson’s initial findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and her collective findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, hold promise for new strategies to combat Salmonella food-borne infections.

These space experiments helped researchers show that a mechanical force known as “fluid shear,” which is the motion of fluid that cells sense as they pass over a surface, could have a dramatic effect on Salmonella's disease-causing potential. Lower fluid shear conditions, it turns out, are found both in microgravity and in our intestines. The bacteria cultured in space are more virulent, and Nickerson’s work showed that by modifying the medium in which the cells are grown, the virulence could be reduced or turned off.

Astronaut Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper, STS-126 mission specialist, works with the Microbe Group Activation Pack containing eight Fluid Processing Apparatuses on the middeck of space shuttle Endeavour while docked with the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA
In other words, space travel may trick the bacteria into behaving as though they were in the low fluid shear environment of the intestine, essentially turning on a switch inside the microbe that increases virulence. Changing the chemistry of the medium in which the bacteria are cultured reverses this effect.

This research opens up new opportunities to improve food treatment methods, develop new therapies and vaccines to combat food poisoning in humans here on Earth, and help better protect astronauts in space from infectious disease.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

Risks of Global Warming Rising: Is It Too Late to Reverse Course?

The risk of catastrophic climate change is getting worse, according to a new study from scientists involved with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Threats—ranging from the destruction of coral reefs to more extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts and floods—are becoming more likely at the temperature change already underway: as little as 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) of warming in global average temperatures."Most people thought that the risks were going to be for certain species and poor people. But all of a sudden the European heat wave of 2003 comes along and kills 50,000, [Hurricane] Katrina comes along and there's a lot of data about the increased intensity of droughts and floods. Plus, the dramatic melting of Greenland that nobody can explain certainly has to increase your concern," says climatologist Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who co-authored the research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as well as in several IPCC reports. "Everywhere we looked, there was evidence that what was believed to be likely has happened. Nature has been cooperating with [climate change] theory unfortunately."Schneider and his colleagues updated a graph, dubbed the "burning embers," that is designed to map the risks of damage from global warming. The initial version of the graph [left] drawn in 2001 had the risks of climate change beginning to appear after 3.6 or 5.4 degrees F (2 to 3 degrees C) of warming, but the years since have shown that climate risks kick in with less warming.According to the new graph, risks to "unique and threatened systems" such as coral reefs and risks of extreme weather events become likely when temperatures rise by as little as 1.8 degrees F from 1990 levels, which is on course to occur by mid-century given the current concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases. In addition, risks of negative consequences such as increased droughts and the complete melting of ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica definitively outweigh any potential positives, such as longer growing seasons in countries such as Canada and Russia. "We're definitely going to overshoot some of these temperatures where we see these very large vulnerabilities manifest," says economist Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., another co-author. "We're going to have to learn how to adapt."Adaptation notwithstanding, Yohe and Schneider say that scientists must also figure out a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reverse the heating trend to prevent further damage.Several bills pending in Congress would set a so-called cap-and-trade policy under which an overall limit on pollution would be set—and companies with low output could sell their allowances to those that fail to cut emissions as long as the total stays within the total pollution cap. Any such federal policy would put a price on carbon dioxide pollution, which is currently free to vent into the atmosphere, Yohe note. He, however, favors a so-called carbon tax that would set a fixed price for such climate-changing pollution rather than the cap-and-trade proposals favored by the Obama administration. "It's a predictable price, not a thing that bounces around."But even with such policies in place—not only in the U.S. but across the globe—climate change is a foregone conclusion; global average temperatures have already risen by at least 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit (0.6 degree C) and further warming of at least 0.7 degree F (0.4 degree C) is virtually certain, according to the IPCC. And a host of studies, including a recent one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have shown that global warming is already worse than predicted even a few years ago. The question is: Will it be catastrophic or not? "We've dawdled, and if we dawdle more it will get even worse," Schneider says. "It's time to move."