E coli bacteria shapeshifts in space to resist antibiotics, study finds

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When exposed to antibiotics in the microgravity of a space station, E coli bacteria change shape to fend off antibiotics, according to a paper published in Frontiers in Microbiology.

For the study, researchers on the International Space Station in 2014 treated cultured E. coli bacteria with several different concentrations of the antibiotic gentamicin sulfate, which kills the bacteria on Earth. The bacteria exhibited a 13-fold increase in cell numbers and a 37 percent reduction in cell volume when compared to E. coli control cultures treated with the antibiotic on Earth.

Additionally, researchers identified a thickening in the outer membrane of the bacterial cells treated in space, which likely provided the bacteria further protection from the antibiotic. Some of these cells also formed membrane vesicles, which facilitate communication between cells.

As the future of space travel is poised to send astronauts on longer expeditions, it's important for researchers to understand how bacteria adapts to environments with limited gravity. But this study's implications are not limited to the astronauts of the future.

"Both the increase in cell envelope thickness and in the outer membrane vesicles may be indicative of drug resistance mechanisms being activated in the spaceflight samples," said Luis, PhD, a research associate in bioastronautics with the University of Colorado in Boulder and the lead author of the study. "And this experiment and others like it give us the opportunity to better understand how bacteria become resistant to antibiotics here on Earth."

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