back to article Astronauts bring space-grown bugs home

The crew of the space shuttle Endeavour has arrived back on Earth safe and sound, but not alone. The astronauts have brought a raging case of strep with them. Well, not so much a case, as sealed containers of space grown Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. The cargo is being shipped to the University of Texas' microbiology and …


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  1. Alex Brett

    *on* the runway?

    "Department chairman David Niesel was on the runway when the shuttle touched down"

    That seems like a really bad idea to me ;)

  2. Idgarad

    Traveller Analysis

    A more concerning issue that this may help is, if there is bacteria throughout the universe what prevents\assists alien bacteria and viruses moving from solar system to solar system.

    Consider this: humans on Earth have had millions of years to evolve resistences to Earth based viruses, bacteria, and so forth. What is preventing say a metorite from carrying a completely alien strain to Earth in which we have no evolutionary defense against? (Barring any intelligent design that has accomodated that consideration already ;) )

    Scenario: Humans visit Mars on a manned mission. Astronauts to replenish water supplies and oxygen levels use martian ice and water deposits. Bacteria, if any exists have to be addressed. But here is the trick, anything returning to Earth is a potential carrier. Assuming any bacteria on the craft survives re-entry; the odds of completely isolating the craft is slim. Even NASA has rats, beetles, lady bugs, moths, etc.

    The study of how crap functions in low-g is a very important step in knowing what to expect and how to handle it. At the very least this type of research can give us good data to work with for threat assessment.

  3. DaveK

    It's called a "figure of speech"

    God knows what you would have thought if the article had said "David Niesel was on hand ..."!

  4. John Bayly

    Exact same conditions?

    "Both sets of bacteria were exposed to exactly the same conditions, except for the microgravity,"

    Umm, and also the large acceleration and vibration (although that could be dampened) during lift off.

  5. Tim Weigel

    Re: Traveller Analysis

    The flip side - if we encounter alien microorganisms that we've no evolutionary defense against, what's to say the microorganisms would be able to harm us at all? Our own bacteria are generally very well adapted to survival in us, and something that's not had any experience with us might not fare well at all (look at all the little nasties on Earth that are good for infecting only certain species but travel harmlessly in others). Granted, some of them are extraordinarily resilient...

    It's possible that in an encounter with alien bacteria the bacteria might not be able to thrive in our environment in general, much less our bodies, even if they can survive. I'd expect that our immune systems would still try to respond to the foreign body, but it's hard to guess just what the outcome would be.

    Overall, I still prefer to see proper precautions taken when we do venture Out There, if nothing else than to prevent us from being unwitting carriers of the alien bugs. That might make an interesting soft sci-fi plot, though, in which the other intelligent species in the galaxy try to prevent humans from traveling as we're excellent carriers of disease.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    But what is the likelihood that a completely novel organism would be able to infect *anything* on Earth? Most viruses/bacteria are fairly limited in the number of organisms they can infect even though they've developed on Earth. It seems quite unlikely that a completely novel organism would turn up with the keys to the city all ready to unleash itself as a pandemic (in humans or otherwise).

    I'm not saying there is no risk (I'm not qualified) but at first glance it looks very slight.

  7. Tim


    I can see them trying to match the conditions of the lauch by matching the G-Forces the bacteria are exposed to, but using the word "Exact" seems very unscientific, even if the research itself was sound.

    "Closely matched" or "simulated the exact" are just two of the possible terms they could have used.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Traveller Analysis

    Four words:

    Andromeda, by Michael Crichton

  9. shorty

    Re: Traveller Analysis

    That is all.

  10. Morely Dotes

    @ Idgarad

    "A more concerning issue that this may help is, if there is bacteria throughout the universe what prevents\assists alien bacteria and viruses moving from solar system to solar system."

    Nothing. However, let's assume a meteoric body carrying some possibly-hostile bacteria from the Centaurus system, some 4+ lightyears distant, to good old Earth. Give it a really, really high speed in order to escape the gravity of the three stars in Centaurus (Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Centauri), say, 288,000 kmh. Assume for simplification that it will travel at a constant speed, and ignore the effects of gravitational slowing and acceleration, and give it a straight-line path.

    A conservative underestimate of the distance is 36,329,472,000,000 km. At the speed postulated, that's 126,144,000 days or 345,600 years.

    Seems like rather a long trip for a dubious meal. Good way to colonize distant planets, but not so good for invading planets which already have well-developed life with its own immune systems - and a chemistry which is likely to make it inedible or even toxic to our tiny unicellular cosmonauts.

  11. Luther Blissett

    Going to Mars

    Safest thing is surely just let them plant the Stars and Stripes there, have everyone salute it, and not bring them back? No risk to the Empire there.

    However, assuming NASA brings them back, what chance is there the guys will not be DOA, given the radiation exposure they are going to get?

    "Solar wind" is a figure of speech. It is really an electric current. (That's my IT angle).

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Conspicuous in his absence..

    amanfrommars? where are you? perhaps we have stumbled upon his REAL raison d’être???

  13. Timothy Slade

    RE: Conditions

    It wasn't a very clearly written article, but the hint is there in "two snapshots of the bacteria frozen in time". From which you could infer that the bacterial samples were frozen during the launch and landing, thus rendering them dormant.

    Relevant text from elsewhere on the web:

    Eight years later, six tightly sealed vials of the bugs were launched into orbit in a cold-storage experiment locker that kept them inactivated at about 39 degrees Fahrenheit. To make sure that the shuttle crew would not be exposed to a potential pathogen, the vials themselves were also packed into two sealed aluminum canisters.

    On day five of the mission, with the shuttle docked to the International Space Station, the crew raised the canisters and their contents to just above human body temperature and incubated them there for 15 and a half hours. Then they transferred them to a super-cold freezer on the ISS, which dropped the temperature of the canisters to 139 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

    "That locked the bacteria at whatever stage they were at, whatever genes they were expressing and whatever proteins they had present were locked in, because no more metabolism was occurring," Niesel said. "So we get a picture of what they were like in space at that time, which is the cool part."

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