Fight against 'superbugs' takes CU Boulder research to space

CU Boulder grows and studies E. Coli on the ISS. Trying to help in fight against 'superbugs.'

KUSA - Researchers trying to find a way to defeat drug-resistant bacteria have turned to space for answers.

University of Colorado Boulder recently conducted a study on the International Space Station.

"The reason for which we started this project is the drug resistance problem we have here on earth," said BioServe Research Associate Luis Zea, the lead study author. "Over 100,000 people are dying every year from bacterial infections that we can no longer cure."

NASA astronauts grew E. Coli on the ISS and treated it with different concentrations of a drug that normally kills the bacteria on Earth.

In space, however, the bacteria shape-shifted - which researchers believe likely helped it survive. Zea said the bacteria decreased in size and formed a thicker, outer membrane.

The cells clustered, somewhat mimicking a unit rather than billions of individual cells.

"By doing the experiment in space, you have almost zero gravity then you are seeing a biologically processes happening in a very different way than it can happen on Earth," Zea said. 

They also researched the bacteria's gene expression during the study.

Zea says researchers observed what's called a "suicide gene" -- which normally causes a bacteria to self destruct -- was active, but was not killing the bacteria.

This is significant because currently, those "suicide genes" can't be targeted by drugs or antibiotics without risk of worsening a bacterial infection.

"On Earth we cannot target that gene with drugs because if you do so not only are you telling them to turn on that self-destruct mechanism, but you're also telling them to turn on other genes and most of them are making that bacterium even worse and it becomes resistant to a lot of different stressors," Zea added.

Zea says the fact that in space the gene was not causing the E. Coli to kill itself could mean there is another gene within the bacteria that they may be able to treat with drugs to cause the bacteria to self-destruct.

"So currently we cannot do that, but space indicates, the spacial experiment indicates that maybe there is another switch that we are not aware of that was unmasked by growing it in space," Zea said. "We believe that if we find this new switch we can use it as a target for new drugs."

© 2017 KUSA-TV


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