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USC School of Pharmacy, NASA track impact of fungi in space on astronauts

January 21, 2017 12:20 am

Could astronauts’ health be affected by the microbes found on the International Space Station in long-term space travel?

While NASA zeroes in on Mars, USC School of Pharmacy researchers partnered with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to answer that question.

NASA’s six-part “Microbial Tracking” investigation intends to inventory and categorize microorganisms found in the air and on surfaces of the International Space Station. Samples collected by astronauts on the station are sent back to earth, allowing scientists to study how the stresses of microgravity and space’s enhanced radiation affect microbial flora on the International Space Station.

“NASA is trying to see whether we can go to Mars and beyond,” explained Jet Propulsion Laboratory senior research scientist Kasthuri “Venkat” Venkateswaran, principal investigator for the experiment. “In a closed environment, people have to inhale and exhale what they breathe. We need to know what we are dealing with, so we can come up with an appropriate countermeasure to mitigate problems. We need to know all of this because you don’t have 9-1-1 to call to get them back.”

Where humans go, microbes follow

USC’s involvement in the project began in 2015. Clay C. C. Wang, professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences and chemistry at the USC School of Pharmacy and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, originally collaborated with Venkateswaran on the launch of Micro-10 and BRIC-NP, two first-of-their-kind research missions to study whether the effects of microgravity and enhanced radiation might influence fungi on the International Space Station to produce new compounds.

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Clay Wang and Kasthuri Venkateswaran launched fungi into space to potentially develop new medicine for use both in space and on Earth. (Photo/Gus Ruelas)


That collaboration between JPL and the USC School of Pharmacy — with Wang and his team providing expertise on fungi and secondary metabolites — now includes work on Microbial Tracking investigation.

Wang’s team at the USC School of Pharmacy includes doctoral candidate Adriana Blachowicz, a former graduate researcher at Venkateswaran’s lab. The team has been studying microorganisms sampled from the International Space Station’s air filter and a hard surface adjacent to the station’s Cupola window.

“Wherever there are humans, there are microbes,” Wang said. “We’re trying to understand the microbes in the International Space Station, and in doing so, possibly find new solutions that could support future long-term space travel.”

The team identified two strains of Aspergillus fumigatus, a common airborne fungi that can cause life-threatening infections in individuals with weakened immune systems. They found that the Aspergillus fumigatus sampled from the International Space Station were more active than “control” strains found on Earth. On Oct. 27, 2016, Blachowicz presented these findings at the annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational & Space Research in Cleveland, Ohio. The findings were also reported in a study published in mSphere on Oct. 27.

Aspergillus fumigatus is an opportunistic pathogen that can affect the health of immunocompromised hosts, like astronauts,” said Blachowicz, a lead author in the study, who added that further research on samples taken directly from the station will help scientists gain an even better understanding of how to protect astronauts’ health in future long-term space travel.

NASA has already awarded the group a grant to continue the investigation.

Nancy Keller of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is also involved in the investigation. Benjamin P. Knox and Jonathan M. Palmer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison were other leading authors on the mSphere study and Jillian Romsdahl of the USC School of Pharmacy was a contributing author.