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The crew of the space shuttle Endeavour has arrived back on Earth safe and sound, but not alone. The astronauts have brought a raging case of strep with them.

Well, not so much a case, as sealed containers of space grown Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. The cargo is being shipped to the University of Texas' microbiology and immunology department for analysis.

Department chairman David Niesel was on the runway when the shuttle touched down, ready to take possession of the bacteria.

Niesel and his colleagues want to try to work out how the bacteria change in microgravity, and determine whether or not the bacteria could pose a threat to a crew on a long space flight.

Streptococcus pneumoniae is known as an opportunistic bacterium: that is to say that most of the time it is harmless, but will readily exploit a host's weakness and trigger a full-blown disease.

"Strep pneumoniae is a very potent pathogen in people who are immunosuppressed - it's the number-one cause of community-acquired pneumonia, and a leading mediator of bacteremia [bacterial blood infections] and meningitis," Niesel said.

"There's a decline in people's immune function the longer they're in the space environment, and it's been shown that other bacteria also alter their properties in microgravity - they grow faster, they tend to be more virulent and resistant to microbial treatment."

The crew carried one of two sets of bacterial cultures with them to the international space station. Another sample was kept on Earth. Both sets of bacteria were exposed to exactly the same conditions, except for the microgravity, Niesel said, with the timings of changes to the bacteria's environments synchronised to the minute.

"Now we have two snapshots of the bacteria frozen in time, grown with the same parameters except the microgravity part, and we should be able to see the differences that result when the bacteria see this unique space environment." ®

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