Do microbes grow differently on the International Space Station than they do on Earth? Results from the growth of microbes collected by SciStarter and Science Cheerleader’s  community of citizen scientists in Project MERCCURI indicate that most behave similarly in both places. Citizen scientists from the NFL, NBA, Pop Warner Youth Football and Cheerleading, and more helped advanced this research.

“While this data is extremely preliminary, it is potentially encouraging for long-term manned spaceflight,” said Dr. David Coil, Project Scientist in the Microbiology Lab of Jonathan Eisen at the University of California at Davis. “With this part of Project MERCCURI we hoped to shed light on how microbes associated with the normal, human and built environment behaved in space. Our focus was not on microbes that cause disease, but the many beneficial and neutral microbes that surround us on a daily basis.”

SciStarter and the Science Cheerleaders organized a community of thousands of people across the country to participate in the citizen science portion of the project, gathering samples from built environments such as chairs, doors, railings… even the Liberty Bell. Then the “microbiology team” in the laboratory at UC Davis grew up and examined hundreds of microbes. The team selected 48 microbes, which, with approval from NASA, rode the SpaceX Falcon 9 to the Space Station for further research. Of those 48, only a handful grew at all differently in Space, and the difference was significant for only one: Bacillus safensis. This microbe was collected on a Mars Exploration Rover (before it was launched) at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. It grew significantly better on the Space Station.

“We observed that the vast majority of the microbes we examined behaved the same on the Space Station as they do on Earth. In the few cases where we observed a microbe behaving differently in space than on Earth, we’d love to follow that up with further experiments,” said Dr. Coil.
In addition to comparing growth rates on Earth and the Space Station, UC Davis identified winners in three different categories for the “Microbial Playoffs” in space.

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