A joint experiment led by NASA and the University of Southern California (USC) plans to send fungi to space, where the high-radiation and microgravitiy conditions are expected to help scientists develop new medicines for use in space and on Earth.
Certain types of fungi produce very important molecules called secondary metabolites that can be used to make beneficial pharmaceuticals, such as the antibiotic penicillin and the cholesterol-lowering drug lovastatin.
The idea is that the stressful environment of the International Space Station (ISS) will trigger physiological changes, such as gene expression, and metabolism of a well-studied fungus known as Aspergillus nidulans. This experiment, called Micro-10, is said to be the first time that fungi will be sent into space for the purpose of developing novel therapeutics.
"The high-radiation, microgravity environment in space could prompt Aspergillus nidulans to produce molecules it doesn't create in Earth's less stressful conditions," explained Clay Wang, a professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences and chemistry at the USC School of Pharmacy and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "We've done extensive genetic analysis of this fungus and found that it could potentially produce 40 different types of drugs. The organism is known to produce osteoporosis drugs, which is very important from an astronaut's perspective because we know that in space travel, astronauts experience bone loss."
Specimens of Aspergillus nidulans will be sent to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX CRS-8 mission, scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 8.
Preliminary Earth-based experiments revealed that molecules from Aspergillus nidulans have the potential to be used in anti-cancer, anti-fungal and Alzheimer's disease studies.
"This is an ambitious project for NASA to see if we could have some breakthrough in space biology," said Kasthuri "Venkat" Venkateswaran, senior research scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "Until now, we have sent bacteria and yeast to the ISS. We have also exposed fungi to facilities outside ISS, but this is the first time we are growing fungi inside ISS to seek new drug discovery. NASA needs to develop self-sustaining measures to keep humans healthy in space because calling 911 is not an option."
Since it's hard to get a spot on the space station, where crew time and cargo space is extremely valuable, the two researchers figured out that their experiment would only need someone to move the fungi from the resupply ship to a temperature controlled incubator.
"It's all controlled here from Earth," Wang said of the incubator.
Essentially, researchers will increase the fungi's temperature from roughly 39 degrees Fahrenheit to 98.6 degrees, at which point it will begin to grow. Then, after four to seven days, the four different strains of Aspergillus nidulans will be put back into cold storage to await their return to Earth, 30 days later. Researchers will then have the opportunity to compare the space fungi to a control group grown locally.
"This is the first project where we see an intersection between pharmaceutical science and space exploration," Wang concluded. "Drugs have an expiration date. NASA's human mission to Mars is expected to last anywhere from one to three years. Not all drugs are going to be stable in that time period, so the ability to make drugs in space will enable us to go further away from Earth and will also benefit future space explorations."