unclassified Spingomonadaceae
March 13, 2014

Microbes In Space: Project MERCCURI To Study Bacteria On Space Station

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A collection of bacteria, viruses and other microbes will depart for the International Space Station (ISS) over the weekend as part of a research initiative known as Project MERCCURI, NASA officials announced Wednesday.

Project MERCCURI, which is officially known as the Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on the International Space Station, is a crowdsourced mission that includes invisible bacteria, viruses and fungi from museums, historical monuments, sporting venues and TV show sets.

The US space agency has joined forces with microBEnet, ScienceCheerleaders, Space Florida, NanoRacks and SciStarter.com on the project, which will send the microbes to the space station on the SpaceX-3 mission on Sunday, March 16 A few days after it arrives, researchers will begin a nine-day analysis in the ISS’s microgravity environment.

“The whole goal of this project was to be a citizen science project and to engage the public as much as possible. It was designed with public collection in mind,” Dr. David Coil, Project MERCCURI co-investigator, explained in a statement. “We have received an extremely enthusiastic response from people. There has been a lot of interest at these public venues in helping us collect samples which has been great.”

According to Dr. Coil, the places that submitted samples to the mission include Sue the T. Rex at the Field Museum in Chicago, samples from Al Roker’s weather wall and various other surfaces from the set of NBC’s Today Show, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and multiple professional basketball and football stadiums.

“My favorite sample is probably the unknown species that was collected by some youth cheerleaders in San Diego,” he said. “One of the bacteria we grew up from that sample appears to be a whole new genus and species which we're in the process of describing...and of course that bacteria will be on this mission [to the space station].”

“The hope is that studies like this will be of use to future long-term manned space missions where people and their microbes will be sealed in together for a long time,” Dr. Coil added. “The very nature of the question is ‘what effect does microgravity have on these organisms?’ so the space station is pretty much the only option.”

Before the samples return to Earth onboard the Dragon spacecraft, members of the ISS crew will be adding additional microbes by swabbing various surfaces in the orbiting laboratory. By doing so, they will allow investigators at the University of California, Davis to find out what types of bacteria, viruses and fungi are living on the base.

As for the microbes themselves, a variety of both beneficial and potentially hazardous organisms were selected and placed in Petri dishes by the UC Davis team. They were incubated to see which types would grow into colonies, and of the hundreds submitted by the public, 48 were chosen to make the journey into space.

The NanoRacks Plate Reader facility, which allows scientists to compare the growth of the samples in space and on the ground simultaneously, will be used to analyze the microbes. Once they reach the station, they will grow in the facility’s microgravity environment, which could lead to new insights into the nature of these organisms.

“Scientifically, it's important to know how various microbes behave in space, before sealing people and their microbes up for a long time and sending them off to Mars,” Dr. Coil said. “The swabs from the space station will be analyzed for a simple understanding of what is living there. The ‘microbial playoffs’ with the 48 bacteria is to ask the question ‘how does the growth of these bacteria differ between microgravity and on Earth.’”

He added that the scientists will simultaneously conduct duplicate experiments on the ground in an attempt to answer that very question. While all of this is going on, citizen scientists and other interested parties can learn more about the various types of bacteria and other microbes involved by following along on the Project MERCCURI website or by using the social media hashtag “#spacemicrobes.”

“Each microbe has a ‘trading card’ that you can view on our website,” Coil said. “These cards describe where the bacteria was collected, how well it grows, some interesting facts about the bacteria, etc. We grew up hundreds of bacteria from the various events around the country, these were chosen on the basis of not being pathogens – a NASA requirement for the study – and ability to grow under the conditions we're using.”

“The biggest direct benefit of this work is to raise awareness about microbes, particularly about microbes in the built environment,” he added. “We've also worked really hard to convey our basic message of ‘microbes are everywhere and most of them are not bad,’ and people have been very responsive to that. Already we have reached hundreds of people who might not otherwise have thought much about either of these topics – or the space station for that matter.”

Image 2 (below): Co-investigator Darlene Cavalier sampling the Liberty Bell for microbes as part of the International Space Station Project MERCCURI investigation. Credit: National Park Service