Wisconsin Experiment Heading To Space Could Someday Benefit Your Gut Health

Feb 6, 2020

A rocket scheduled to go to the International Space Station on Sunday will carry a Wisconsin experiment that could help in the fight against bacteria that resist antibiotics. The research may also assist future astronauts and other space travelers.  

Scientists have known for about a century that viruses called phages can destroy harmful bacteria without large-scale killing of cells or beneficial bacteria in the human body. But soon after that discovery, the development of penicillin and other antibiotic drugs dampened the idea of making more use of phages.  That's changed in recent years, as more bacteria have grown resistant to antibiotics. 

On Sunday afternoon, the virus research moves off the Earth and into space. Weather permitting, a rocket will be launched from a NASA facility in Virginia. It’s a re-supply mission to the space station. But the rocket will also carry material for several experiments. That includes frozen tubes of bacteria and phages for research spearheaded by UW-Madison Biochemistry assistant professor Vatsan Raman.

Tubes of bacteria and phages.
Credit Courtesy of the UW-Madison

On a recent NASA conference call, Raman said phages are the most abundant living entity.

"It's estimated that for every bacterium on Earth, there's approximately 10 or more phages. And when the phages find their bacterial host, they inject their DNA into the bacteria, make many, many copies and sometimes kill the host," Raman said.

In humans, this interaction of micro-organisms takes place in what scientists call the microbiome. Raman says probably the biggest reservoir of phages and bacteria is the gut, or the small and large intestines. He says when there isn't the right balance of the microbes you may feel ill.

UW-Madison Biochemistry assistant professor Vatsan Raman is spearheading research that's heading to space.
Credit Courtesy of UW-Madison

“It can often lead to pathogenesis, which means you can have an infective species kind of take over the population, which is obviously not good. Sometimes you can have digestive disorders because your microbiome plays an important role in processing your diet. So, maintaining a healthy microbiome, where you have diverse species present is absolutely essential for health," Raman said.

On the International Space Station, he says astronauts will conduct experiments looking at how the microgravity and radiation not found on Earth may affect the virus-bacteria interaction. Weaker gravity could change how often phages bump into bacteria. Raman says the radiation in space, sometimes high energy cosmic rays, could lead to mutation of DNA.

"Which means, the frequency phages and bacteria might mutate is perhaps higher in space than on Earth. Which leads to the question: what happens then? Do the phages acquire new functions? Do they lose existing functions? Does the bacteria acquire new functions? Does it lose existing function?” Raman said.

A patch representing the upcoming mission, which was designed by Chutikarn Chitboonthavisuk, of professor Vatsan Raman's lab.
Credit Courtesy of UW-Madison

With the U.S. planning to send more astronauts into space in the coming decades, and President Donald Trump even viewing the planned Space Force as a branch of the military, the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency is funding the phage experiment. 

A Texas-based biotechnology corporation, Rhodium Scientific, is also interested in the results. Rhodium's Heath Mills is co-investigator on the project known as Phage Evolution. Mills says imagine being able to target a phage toward a pathogen, or disease-causing micro-organism.  

"You're now looking at a highly-focused mechanism to alleviate a troublesome, pathogenic, harmful bacteria, while leaving the rest of that microbiome intact. The problem with current anti-microbials, antibiotics, is that they destroy a vast swath of that microbiome, of which now you need to have replacements, which you need to go back in and rebuild over time," Mills said.

Mills says better targeting could help astronauts and future space tourists, as well as most of us who will never leave the ground. 

After the experiments on the International Space Station, samples will come back and be compared to results found on Earth.  

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