Environment & Science

Why sending fungus to space could help us on Earth

Clay Wang and Kasthuri Venkateswaran will launch fungi into space to potentially develop new medicine for use both in space and on Earth.
Clay Wang and Kasthuri Venkateswaran will launch fungi into space to potentially develop new medicine for use both in space and on Earth.
Gus Ruelas

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This Friday, some fungus is hitching a ride on a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station, and it’s not growing on some old food in the cargo hold.

This fungus is part of a USC and NASA experiment that could pave the way for the development of new and powerful medicines.

Fungi have long been used to produce medicinal compounds like penicillin and drugs that fight cholesterol, but about a decade ago, scientists decoded the genome of a common type of fungus called Aspergillus nidulans. They found it has the ability to produce a lot more potentially useful substances.

The problem is it needs to be stressed out to do that. Fungi produce things like penicillin as a defense mechanism against harsh conditions.

USC researcher Clay Wang decided one way to stress fungus is to send it to space.

"Space is a very unique environment," he said.

Specifically, being on the space station exposes microorganisms to both micro-gravity and solar radiation. Wang hopes these conditions will affect the fungus enough to jolt it into producing previously unknown compounds.

The Aspergillus nidulans samples will grow for four to seven days on the space station before returning to Earth in May.

Then, Wang and his colleagues at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory will study the samples and look for new compounds. If they find something interesting they will test it to see if it has medicinal properties.

"Back on Earth we can genetically modify these organisms to produce more of something," he said. That way, scientists won't need to send fungus to space every time they want to capture the new compounds.

His lab is specifically interested in identifying molecules that could help fight cancer or treat Alzheimer's disease.

Space might also make the fungus more productive, Wang said. If his team can identify what triggers the fungus to produce more compounds in space, they might be able to make that happen on Earth as well, leading to cheaper medicines in the long run.