Why Is Elon Musk About To Launch A Lethal Pathogen Into Space?

Why Is Elon Musk About To Launch A Lethal Pathogen Into Space?

On February 14th, SpaceX and Elon Musk will launch a deadly pathogen into space to the International Space Station. The pathogen is called MRSA (or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and causes hospitalized patients very frequent and difficult to treat infections. The superbug is rapidly becoming resistant to most currently available antibiotics, which is a major concern for doctors and patients alike. Now, the founder of Tesla and Space X, a pioneering scientist, NASA and CASIS are all teaming up in an effort to stop this leathal pathogen.


After launch and once MRSA is on board, it will be used in a fascinating study to examine the impact of near-zero gravity on gene expression and mutation patterns.  The study is sponsored by NASA and CASIS and will be led by Anita Goel, MD PhD.  Dr. Goel is the the Chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym, who was awarded the first XPRIZE in Healthcare for the Gene-RADAR® technology—the world’s first, mobile, Tricorder device that enables real-time diagnosis of any disease with a genetic fingerprint and at a cost at least 10 times cheaper than comparable diagnostic tests on the market today.  Dr. Anita Goel is a world-renowned expert and pioneer in the emerging field of Nanobiophysics – a new science at the convergence of physics, nanotechnology, and biomedicine. Dr. Goel has been expanding conventional theoretical physics frameworks and their mathematical machinery to describe non-equilibrium, open systems such as life and living systems that are strongly coupled with their environment.  It’s Dr. Goel’s hypothesis that the near-zero gravity environment could result in accelerated mutation rates of MRSA.  In other words, we can press the ‘fast forward’ button and get a sneak peak at mutation patterns that have not yet occurred on earth.

Our work in micorgravity on International Space Station is both very practical and fundamental. We are pushing the envelope of personalized, precision medicine, enabling better prediction of drug resistance and hence smarter drugs. On a fundamental science level, I am keen to test my 20 year old hypothesis that the environment can deeply influence the information flow from both the genome and transcriptome.
—Anita Goel, MD PhD

The implications for medicine and drug developement are tremendous.  Current antimicrobial therapies are often ineffective and the emergence of resistance can only be observed in real-time, or retrospectively.  So, treating infections is often a ‘catch-up’ scenario where pathogens can be elusive and have the upper hand. Goel and her team plan to leverage the unique environment in space to observe the activity of MRSA—from gene expression to mutations—to provide insights into what might happen back on earth. These data can be used to leap-frog drug developement and find molecules that may be effective against strains that are predicted by this extraterrestrial microbiology lab.

In the cramped quarters of space and the value conscious enviornment of both earth and space technology and innovation are driving solutions that may offer real-world solutions for the astronaut and hospitalized patient alike.  One thing’s for sure, the future is simply out of this world.