Feeds

Shuttle Discovery to bring back PLAGUE RODENTS from SPACE

Virus we all carry to be enhanced by effects of orbit

Intelligent flash storage arrays

Worryingly, plans have been announced to expose a horde of rodents to bizarre, poorly understood space plagues and bring them back to Earth for experiments.

"The space environment incorporates many factors that we know affect the immune system — microgravity, radiation, even different nutritional standards — all acting in a relatively short period of time," says Dr Roberto Garofalo, in charge of the space rodent plague experiments.

It seems that the hazards of spacegoing tend to make humans and animals less resistant to diseases. Not only do they become less resistant to regular infections such as flu or colds, but sometimes a dormant infection - carried without any ill effects, perhaps, by a majority of the human race - will become much more virulent in the strange environment of outer space.

"Since the Apollo missions, we have had evidence that astronauts have increased susceptibility to infections during flight and immediately post-flight — they seem more vulnerable to cold and flu viruses and urinary tract infections, and viruses like Epstein-Barr, which infect most people and then remain dormant, can reactivate under the stress of spaceflight," says Garofalo.

In the case of the experiments just about to begin, the idea is to infect some mice with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Almost every person on the planet is infected with this by the age of two, and in almost all of us it is no big deal. In a very few cases, however, it develops into a potentially deadly lung disease.

"We have substantial experience using mice to study immune response to RSV infection, and that will enable us to look at all the aspects of the immune responses of these mice as well as the pathological manifestations of the disease, looking at ways in which the space environment affects this respiratory infection," Garofalo said.

Sixteen space-plague murines will travel into orbit tomorrow aboard space shuttle Discovery, making its final flight. They will spend 11 days in orbit, riding in individual mouse space podules with automatic life support. Weakened by the strange conditions of space, they are expected to develop the rare and deadly malignant form of RSV - the one that could potentially wipe out humanity in a generation if it occurred more often.

Normally we would say here, well, we know what happens next. Shuttle crackup during final approach, plague-rodent podules come down somewhere, meddling kids ... PLAGUE FROM SPACE. You won't be able to turn round for bustling black-helicopter-borne biohazard-suited boffins.

However Garofalo and his colleagues actually plan to infect the mice with RSV only after they have returned to Earth, so in fact there would seem no reason to get overly excited this time. Dammit.

That said, there's hope for some truly newsworthy sci-fi-disaster style research in future. Garofalo has his eyes on the International Space Station (ISS) for when the Shuttles finally retire.

"The space station provides a unique environment for generating answers to fundamental questions about the human immune system," says the prof. "Those answers will benefit people here on Earth, and there's been a lot of interest in pursuing them." ®

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
GRAV WAVE DRAMA: 'Big Bang echo' may have been grit on the scanner – boffins
Exit Planet Dust on faster-than-light expansion of universe
SpaceX Dragon cargo truck flies 3D printer to ISS: Clawdown in 3, 2...
Craft berths at space station with supplies, experiments, toys
That glass of water you just drank? It was OLDER than the SUN
One MEELLION years older. Some of it anyway
NASA rover Curiosity drills HOLE in MARS 'GOLF COURSE'
Joins 'traffic light' and perfect stony sphere on the Red Planet
Big dinosaur wowed females with its ENORMOUS HOOTER
That's right, Doris, I've got biggest snout in the prehistoric world
Japanese volcano eruption reportedly leaves 31 people presumed dead
Hopes fade of finding survivors on Mount Ontake
Relive the death of Earth over and over again in Extinction Game
Apocalypse now, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that ...
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.