NASA sending fungi into space to study drug development

A team of researchers from NASA and the University of Southern California will be the first in the world send fungi into space with the goal of developing medical drugs. The fungi, which are known to produce molecules called secondary metabolites, will hitch a ride to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX rocket scheduled to launch on April 8th. Secondary metabolites can be used to create beneficial medicine for humans, such as the antibiotic penicillin.

So, why would scientists need to produce drugs for humans in space when they can just take them on departure? The goal is connected to future deep space missions, such as those being planned for Mars, that could last up to several years. "Not all drugs are going to be stable in that time period, so the ability to make drugs in space will enable us to go further away from Earth and will also benefit future space explorations," said USC professor Clay Wang.

Secondary metabolites are only generated when fungi are in stressful conditions, and the scientists believe the environment of space should be able to provide more than few stressors. Up to 40 different drugs could come from the fungi NASA is sending, called Aspergillus nidulans, which has seen plenty of previous use in pharmaceutical research.

While on its way to the ISS, the fungi will be stored at a temperature of 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and once it arrives it will be stored for seven days at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Among the drugs that have been previously produced from Aspergillus nidulans include those used to treat osteoporosis. If this can also be done in space, it could be very beneficial for when astronauts lose bone mass while on long-term missions away from Earth.

Samples from the experiment will return to Wang and the USC researchers in May, when they will be able to see if drug-related molecules can successfully be produced in space.

SOURCE University of Southern California