SpaceX’s next mission to the International Space Station (ISS) is going to have a rather exciting experiment on board. It’s going to carry a pathogen called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, a superbug that poses huge health problems on Earth.
But this space experiment could prove vital. Led by Anita Goel of Nanobiosym, it’s thought the weightless environment on the ISS will accelerate the mutation rate of MRSA. This will give researchers a look at how this pathogen will evolve in the future, and perhaps help us stop it. In the US, MRSA is responsible for more than 11,000 deaths every year.
Notably, it is often hard to treat superbugs like this as they quickly develop a resistance to antibiotics that we cannot predict. But by seeing how they evolve on the ISS, researchers could be ahead of the game and prepare treatments for the future.
“Our work in microgravity on [the] International Space Station is both very practical and fundamental,” Goel told Forbes. “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.”
This experiment will be taken to the ISS by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket on February 18. That launch is notable for another reason, too, as SpaceX will be using a historic NASA pad for the first time. Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral in Florida was once used for the Space Shuttle, but in 2014 SpaceX took it over.
Aside from this interesting experiment, the Dragon capsule will also be taking vital supplies and other experiments to the ISS. In total it will have about 2,500 kilograms (5,500 pounds) of cargo on board.
This will be SpaceX’s first launch attempt from Florida since one of its rockets exploded back in September 2016, although they recently returned to launching in mid-January with a flight from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.