Today’s space exploration goals are ever more similar to a Star Trek scenario: we are aiming far, to go where no one has gone before. But the longer the space missions, the most likely it is something goes wrong. To make sure we are successful, our technology and science need to be aligned, and that involves “Space Microbes”.
I am happy to share with you my first space project called “Biofilm Formation in Space (BFS)” scheduled to launch to the International Space Station (ISS) late 2018 / early 2019 on a SpaceX flight (SpaceX CRS-16 or Spx-16). The project is funded by NASA and the principal Investigator (PI) is Luis Zea from BioServe Space Technologies. The rest of the team counts with organizations such as the German Aerospace Center (DLR) – both me and my PhD supervisor Dr. Ralf Moeller are involved in the project – and also MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and the University of Saarland.
Meet the Team:
So what is the project about?
Many microorganisms, from bacteria to fungi, form biofilms. These biofilms are complex, resistant structures and they can be found almost everywhere on Earth: on our teeth, in water systems, in medical instruments, on our bathtubs, etc. Biofilms were also found aboard the ISS contaminating their onboard-grown lettuce or clogging the urinal-recycling system and others (see more here).
In a long-term space mission, it would be desirable that biofilms can be monitored and controlled, first to reduce systems maintenance and increase efficiency and reliability, and second to prevent health issues among the astronauts.
Two main “space microbes” that form biofilms will be studied: Pseudomonas aeruginosa, –a Gram-negative bacteria; and Penicillium rubens (or Penicillium chrysogenum) – a filamentous fungi. The science part will mainly consist on 1) growing the organisms on the ISS where they will be exposed to microgravity (or near weightlessness) and comparing this with their growth on Earth, where they are exposed to normal 1g gravity; 2) characterizing biofilm growth both in a morphological and genetic level.
Right now, as we speak, we are doing “Ground-based” tests to prepare the flight experiment. These tests consist in defining the experimental conditions and simulating the actual experiment that will happen on board the ISS. This helps us to know what to expect from the scientific results, and how to prepare for the worst, mitigating as many problems as possible. On Earth, we have 1g gravity, so how can we simulate the ISS experiment on the “ground”?
To simulate the ISS’s microgravity we use a 2-D Clinostat: a device that rotates at a constant speed, enabling the gravity vector to be constantly changing direction. This is not real microgravity, but it makes it so that the cells of the microorganisms, and the particles within the cells get “confused” and do not sediment like they would on Earth gravity. This corresponds to something that we call “functional microgravity”. It is definitely not the same, but it is a “good enough” approach for the science world today. There are many different Clinostats, each adapted to different containers that depend essentially on the organism scientists want to test (examples here).
During the ground tests there is high demand for team work in order to meet hard deadlines imposed by NASA (in this case). Flying things to space is expensive in all the ways imaginable: time, money, human resources. We need to have everything ready and safe to fly. Once on the ISS, the organisms will grow inside the BioCells. The BioCell is a container developed by BioServe that allows for growing microorganisms without any leaking or air-bubbles standing in the way. The astronauts will have to help us in starting and finishing the experiment by handling the BioCells.
German astronaut Alexander Gerst on the ISS holding a BioCell (Credit NASA):
After the experiment is done, the BioCells will be sent back to Earth and the team will analyse the results, hopefully getting a lot of exciting outcomes! The results will help us understand how these two organisms respond to spaceflight conditions, and we can later use this information to develop monitoring and controlling protocols not only on spacecrafts but also in hospitals.
The best thing about science is that everything we do, and everything we learn is knowledge for everyone. What we will learn about the organisms we include in the space experiment may be transversally applied to all areas these organisms are involved in. Take Penicillium rubens for example, the main producer of the antibiotic penicillin. There is still a lot to be understood about its biology, and every piece of information we get will lead to yet another infinite number of scientific experiments along the years.
What else can this and other microbes hold?!
Zea, L., Luo, J., Moeller, R., Klaus, D., Mueller, D., Muecklich, F., Stodieck, L., Design of a Spaceflight Biofilm Experiment, 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Adelaide, Australia, 25-29 September 2017, IAC-17.A1.6.8×36309, Sep-2017 Material coupon adherence