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Detecting bacteria in space: The good, the bad and the unknown

HOUSTON (Nov. 13, 2002) Bacteria in space, beware. New technology to monitor and identify bacteria is in the works.

Dr. George E. Fox and Dr. Richard Willson, researchers on the National Space Biomedical Research Institute's immunology and infection team, have developed a new technology to characterize unknown bacteria. Its immediate application will be for identifying bacteria in space, but it will eventually aid in diagnosing medical conditions and detecting biological hazards on Earth.

"Understanding the bacterial environment is important for astronauts' health," said Fox, professor of biology and biochemistry at University of Houston. "Astronauts spend months in the same quarters, breathe recycled air and potentially drink recycled water; conditions that create a bacterial breeding ground. Additionally, the space environment might also have some unexpected health considerations."

Studies have shown that space conditions suppress the human immune system, making the body more susceptible to infection. Further, weightlessness and higher levels of radiation may increase the mutation rate in bacteria. This could result in making some organisms more resistant to antibiotics or perhaps causing others that are normally harmless to become infectious.

"Because of space's unidentified effects on bacteria and the immune system, we don't know which organisms will cause problems," Fox said. "However, we have developed a technique to determine an organism's approximate identity."

Their approach is based off the bacterial tree of life, which is arranged according to similarities in organisms' DNA sequences. Organisms whose DNA sequences are closely matched are more closely related than organisms whose DNA sequences are less similar. Fox and Willson have developed a method to identify the DNA sequences that are unique to small groups of bacteria.

"Current detection systems mandate that you test for an exact organism. If
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Contact: Kathy Major
major@bcm.tmc.edu
713-798-5893
National Space Biomedical Research Institute
13-Nov-2002


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