Powerful you have become: a 3D-printed model of Star Wars' Yoda. Photo: Getty
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Made in space: Sending 3D printers into orbit

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out.

Samantha Cristoforetti is about to enjoy a trip to space. Formerly a fighter pilot in the Italian air force, the 37-year-old Cristoforetti is now a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut. She will blast off with two others, a Russian and an American, in a Russian Soyuz rocket on 23 November. After a few hours, the trio will arrive at the International Space Station (ISS). We can say this with confidence because people have beenS making this trip for very long. This month marks the 14th year of human life in space.

We’re not stopping at the space station, though. One of Cristoforetti’s tasks will be to test the ESA’s new 3D printer, a means to creating future space technology in orbit.

The development of 3D printing is another quiet revolution in progress. Just like a standard inkjet printer for paper documents, it places microscopic drops on to a surface – but these drops are molten plastic or metal. They solidify immediately and another drop can be placed on top of the first layer. Gradually, the drops build up to form an object created with extraordinary precision.

The ESA wants to test a 3D printer in orbit because this is likely to be the best place and method of building the equipment that will take us further out. On earth, firms such as Rolls-Royce are already making plans to use 3D printers to build parts for cars and aeroplanes. Recently, General Electric 3D-printed a fully functioning miniature jet engine. Nasa has created 3D-printed fuel injectors for its rocket engines. Airbus’s experiments with 3D printers have enabled the company to reduce the number of components in its fuel injectors from 250 to two. Manufacturing has never looked so easy – or so promising.

The next step is 3D printing in space. Cristoforetti’s task is to make sure the technology works in the near-absence of gravity. Molten materials form different-shaped drops in microgravity: without a strong pull towards the centre of our planet, they are almost perfect spheres and may not bond to the structure under construction in the same way as on earth. That would create weaker objects. This matters because the future of space colonisation is likely to depend on microgravity manufacturing of satellite parts, sensors, engines and even housing and storage facilities.

With 3D printers on the ISS, the residents can build whatever they need for their next step in space. At the least, this will reduce the payload problems on supply rockets. Although the materials that feed into the printer will have to be delivered, they’ll be in the form of pellets – much easier to pack, weight for weight, than a fully formed part for a satellite.

Once we have become used to it, 3D printing will be as mundane as printing out a high-resolution photograph is to most people now. Similarly, spacefaring was once a dream but is now routine. The world held its breath at the attempt to land a probe on a comet and Commander Chris Hadfield’s tweets and songs broadcast from space caught our attention for a moment but almost no one notices the ISS passing overhead. Even fewer give a moment’s thought to the human beings living up there.

So, we have colonised space. There was no fanfare, no spectacular jamboree. It required remarkable ingenuity, carefully paced progress and determination in the face of scepticism – for a long time, the ISS was described as a white elephant. In the end, though, our scientists, astronauts and engineers just quietly got on with the programme and, thanks to research by the likes of Cristoforetti, we will 3D-print our way to even greater heights. Our time confined to the planet has ended – not with a bang but with a printer. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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The answer to the antibiotics crisis might be inside your nose

The medical weapons we have equipped ourselves with are losing their power. But scientists scent an answer. 

They say there’s a hero in everyone. It turns out that actually, it resides within only about ten percent of us. Staphylococcus lugdunensis may be the species of bacteria that we arguably don’t deserve, but it is the one that we need.

Recently, experts have cautioned that we may be on the cusp of a post-antibiotic era. In fact, less than a month ago, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on a woman who died from a "pan-resistant" disease – one that survived the use of all available antibiotics. Back in 1945, the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, warned during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech against the misuse of antibiotics. More recently, Britain's Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies has referred to anti-microbial resistance as “the greatest future threat to our civilisation”.

However, hope has appeared in the form of "lugdunin", a compound secreted by a species of bacteria found in a rather unlikely location – the human nose.

Governments and health campaigners alike may be assisted by a discovery by researchers at the University of Tubingen in Germany. According to a study published in Nature, the researchers had been studying Staphylococcus aureus. This is the bacteria which is responsible for so-called "superbug": MRSA. A strain of MRSA bacteria is not particularly virulent, but crucially, it is not susceptible to common antibiotics. This means that MRSA spreads quickly from crowded locations where residents have weaker immune systems, such as hospitals, before becoming endemic in the wider local community. In the UK, MRSA is a factor in hundreds of deaths a year. 

The researchers in question were investigating why S. aureus is not present in the noses of some people. They discovered that another bacteria, S. lugdunensis, was especially effective at wiping out its opposition, even MRSA. The researchers named the compound created and released by the S. lugdunensis "lugdunin".

In the animal testing stage, the researchers observed that the presence of lugdunin was successful in radically reducing and sometimes purging the infection. The researchers subsequently collected nasal swabs from 187 hospital patients, and found S. aureus on roughly a third of the swabs, and S. lugdunensis on up to 10 per cent of them. In accordance with previous results, samples that contained both species saw an 80 per cent decrease of the S. aureus population, in comparison to those without lugdunin.

Most notably, the in vitro (laboratory) testing phase provided evidence that the new discovery is also useful in eliminating other kinds of superbugs, none of which seemed to develop resistance to the new compound. The authors of the study hypothesised that lugdunin had evolved  “for the purpose of bacterial elimination in the human organism, implying that it is optimised for efficacy and tolerance at its physiological site of action". How it works, though, is not fully understood. 

The discovery of lugdunin as a potential new treatment is a breakthrough on its own. But that is not the end of the story. It holds implications for “a new concept of finding antibiotics”, according to Andreas Peschel, one of the bacteriologists behind the discovery.

The development of antibiotics has drastically slowed in recent years. In the last 50 years, only two new classes of this category of medication have been released to the market. This is due to the fact almost all antibiotics in use are derived from soil bacteria. By contrast, the new findings record the first occurrence of a strain of bacteria that exists within human bodies. Some researchers now suggest that the more hostile the environment to bacterial growth, the more likely it may be for novel antibiotics to be found. This could open up a new list of potential areas in which antibiotic research may be carried out.

When it comes to beating MRSA, there is hope that lugdunin will be our next great weapon. Peschel and his fellow collaborators are in talks with various companies about developing a medical treatment that uses lugdunin.

Meanwhile, in September 2016, the United Nations committed itself to opposing the spread of antibiotic resistance. Of the many points to which the UN signatories have agreed, possibly the most significant is their commitment to “encourage innovative ways to develop new antibiotics”. 

The initiative has the scope to achieve a lot, or dissolve into box ticking exercise. The discovery of lugdunin may well be the spark that drives it forward. Nothing to sniff about that. 

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman