Editor's note: In his latest "What's New" rant, AIP's resident curmudgeon Bob Park reveals his chronic and absolute ignorance with regard to biology when he says:
2. ENDEAVOUR: NOT THE FIRST TIME IN SPACE FOR S. PNEUMONIAE. School teacher Barbara Morgan, we're told, has been busy using the camera on the robot arm to examine the shuttle skin for signs of damage from three pieces of foam that broke off the fuel tank on launch.Not a word though on how Streptococcus pneumoniae is doing.A vial of the pneumonia bacteria was taken up on Endeavour to study how microbes adapt to microgravity.Are they kidding?In the human space flight program this is called "science." Of course, S. pneumoniae have been to space many times before - they're in the upper respiratory tract of 40% of the population.Why didn't they just swab the nasal passages of astronauts?
Streptococcus pneumoniae colonizes the nasopharyngeal cavity in 5 - 70% of adults in the population depending primarily on whether they have recently been in close proximity to small children. As such, Park's claim of 40% is an oversimplification. It is precisely because this organism may colonize otherwise healthy adults and cause them no problems unless or until they become immune-compromised (which indeed may occur during long-duration exploration-class missions), at which point space life scientists really do need to know whether S. pneumoniae behaves differently under conditions of microgravity.
There is precedent for changes in potentially pathogenic bacteria when grown in the microgravity environment (see papers by Duane Pierson et al). The researchers for this experiment and others (Cheryl Nickerson, Arnold Dement) see changes in patterns of gene expression or production of secondary metabolites in ground-based analogs of microgravity.
Alas, Bob Park never bothers to research the actual science behind things before he dumps on them. Then again, "What's New" about that, eh Bob?