Sunday, January 11, 2009

Food poisoning in space

Astronaut Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper holds the sealed bacteria flasks.

Next week we will talk a couple of times about what it is that actually makes us sick when we are infected with a bacteria. One of the most common ways that bacteria make us sick is when they either produce a toxin that they excrete (an exotoxin) or contain a toxin that may be released when the bacteria die (an endotoxin). A lot of the exotoxins are VERY toxic, some of the most toxic substances we know such as Botulinum produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum (see earlier posting 'Meet the Clostridiums'). In fact much food poisoning is a consequence of exotoxins. As you may have heard there is currently a Salmonella outbreak in the US possibly caused by Peanut Butter contaminated with Salmonella typhimurium. (You may want to check the recall details if you have "King Nut" or "Parnell's Pride" peanut butter).

All things considered you would think that Salmonella typhimurium would be about the last organism you'd want to take on a space flight. But no, intrepid scientists took samples of Salmonella typhimurium into space on a 2006 Atlantis mission. Curiously the bacteria became three times more virulent under the zero gravity conditions of space. SpaceDaily has quite a thorough report.

Although they used triple enclosed containers, and, I suppose, the consequences of dropping a container are less severe in zero gravity, the consequences of severe food poisoning in zero gravity just don't bear thinking about. Doh! Now I've gone and thought about it....

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