Astronaut Scott Kelly says he loved living on the International Space Station for nearly a year, but tests back on Earth show his body disagreed with him. That’s not the case with a bacteria that actually thrives on life inside the ISS. Is it too early to pitch a movie about it?
Project MERCCURI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers on ISS) is the work of the University of California, Davis, and an unusual collection of scientific and public organizations, including Science Cheerleader – which is a group of current and former professional cheerleaders pursuing careers in science and math. Really!
Project MERCCURI involved sending 48 different types of Earth bacteria to the ISS to see how they grew under space station conditions. The cheerleaders had ready access to a wide variety of bacteria due to working in places with locker rooms which, according to Dr David Coil, UC Davis microbiologist and lead author of the study published in PeerJ, are a lot like the ISS.
The warm, humid, oxygen-rich environment of the ISS is a far cry from the vacuum of space.
After their time in the ISS, 47 of the 48 bacteria proved Coil right by behaving exactly as they would on Earth on a shower floor or inside a stinky sneaker. The exception was a microbe called Bacillus safensis, which grew 60% better in space than on Earth. If that name sounds familiar (and if it does, I’m impressed), B. safensis was first discovered on spacecraft and assembly-facility surfaces at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Unfortunately, they were discovered after the Opportunity and Spirit rovers, which were exposed to it, were sent to Mars in 2004. Uh-oh.
The fate of the B. safensis possibly sent to Mars is not known. The cause of its unusual growth inside the space station is being studied, as is its genome sequence which was recently determined. Dr. Coil explains why:
Understanding how microbes behave in microgravity is critically important for planning long-term manned spaceflight but also has the possibility of providing new insights into how these microbes behave in human constructed environments on Earth.
In the meantime, the script for Science Cheerleaders in Space! is progressing nicely.