USC and NASA will be making history on April 8, when they will become the first team in the world to launch fungi into space. The organizations launched the collaboration in an effort to develop new medicines to use on Earth and in space.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and USC decided to use space as the new test environment for fungi because they believe that the stressful environment in space could alter the fungi and bring about physiological changes.
In some conditions, certain types of fungi produce secondary metabolites that are not essential in terms of the growth and reproduction of the bacteria, but are very essential in making pharmaceuticals.
The fungus that will be launched for this experiment is called Aspergillus nidulans. Clay Wang works as a professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences and chemistry at the USC School of Pharmacy and USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. According to Wang, Aspergillus nidulans is the ideal fungus to study because the high-radiation and microgravity space environment could cause the fungus to produce molecules it wouldn't normally create on Earth.
Not only is this the first time that there will be an intersection between space exploration and pharmaceutical science, but this is also the first time that the JPL and NASA have elected to grow fungi inside the International Space Station (ISS) to discover new drugs.
And it's not just one drug they are looking for – the altered gene sequence of Aspergillus nidulans is expected to create 40 different types of drugs, according to Wang, the head of the USC-JPL research team.
One of the major drugs that this experiment could develop would treat osteoporosis. Aspergillus nidulans is an organism that is already known to produce osteoporosis drugs. If this production can be enhanced, then space travel would be a lot more manageable, as a main problem for astronauts is bone loss.
Moreover, USC scientists believe Aspergillus nidulans can also be used in anti-cancer, anti-fungal and Alzheimer's disease studies.
USC and JPL were equipped with $600,000 for this study thanks to NASA's Space Exploration Program, which is in place to discover new basic knowledge to equip the agency for human space exploration.
The launch will take place on April 8 as a part of the SpaceX CRS-8 mission. At 1:43 p.m. (PST) a Falcon 9 rocket will be launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. This is the first flight that SpaceX has launched since the CRS-7 mission that exploded just over two minutes into flight last June.
Reach staff reporter Maxwell Goldwasser here.