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Space-Age Conan the Bacterium

Bacteria Working in the Shadows: Deinococcus radiodurans
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In 1956, professor Arthur W. Anderson experimented with food sterilization by dousing canned meat with large quantities of gamma radiation. Despite an unusually high dosage, a potent microbe killer, the the canned meat still spoiled. The enduring culprit: Deinococcus radiodurans or “Conan the Bacterium.”

Deinococcus radiodurans is a large sphere-shaped, nonpathogenic, gram-positive strain commonly found in meat, soil, feces and sewage. It has also been detected in dried foods, room dust, medical instruments and textiles. It is extremely adaptable, surviving exposure to severe cold, dehydration, acidity and genotoxic chemicals. One of Conan’s distinguishing features is its ability to repair both single- and double-stranded DNA within 48 hours of mutation, which makes it highly attractive for scientific repurposing.

Researchers have already developed strains of D. radiodurans to detoxify ionic mercury residue in radioactive waste.

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D. radiodurans’ resilience to a high measure of radiation and ability to survive volatile environments makes it attractive for NASA experimentation; it’s moved from Spam to Pigs in Space. Researchers are working to harness D. radiodurans to help in the search for bacterial evidence of life on Mars and even restructure Mars for human habitation.

A 2006 experiment on the space shuttle Atlantis found that certain Earth-bound bacterial pathogens become three times more dangerous when exposed to the zero-gravity environment of space. (You may recall astronaut Fred Haise’s cinema-friendly urinary tract infection aboard Apollo 13). In this vein, some research has delved into D. radiodurans’ penchant for DNA repair in the development of vaccines — genetically altering the strain for medicinal use in space and at home. And so, it seems, this primitive strain will lead us through the 21st century and beyond.