By Joseph Castermeyer
On July 8, at approximately 11:26 a.m. EDT, the space shuttle Atlantis will streak skyward from the Kennedy Space Center’s launch pad 39A, for one last mission. While the STS-135 flight marks the end of the space shuttle’s glory days, its final trip may open a new era of research into infectious diseases, thanks to space bound experiments conducted by Dr’s. Cheryl Nickerson, and Roy Curtiss III, along with their colleagues at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute.
Nickerson, a microbiologist and authority on infectious pathogens, has been using spaceflight or spaceflight analogues since 1998 as an exploratory platform for investigating the processes of infection. Her provocative approach to microbial research has already paid rich dividends. In earlier experimental missions, Nickerson’s team demonstrated that conditions of microgravity present aboard the space shuttle have the potential to increase the disease-causing capacity or virulence of microbes like Salmonella—a major causative agent of food-borne illness.
Further, her research demonstrated that spaceflight globally altered gene expression in Salmonella and other pathogens in critical ways that were not observed during culture on Earth, and were governed by a master switch regulating this response. “Our earlier work showed the potential for spaceflight to provide novel insight into the mechanisms of microbial virulence that may lead to innovations in infectious disease control here on Earth,” she said.