Donate to Science & Enterprise

S&E on Mastodon

S&E on LinkedIn

S&E on Flipboard

Please share Science & Enterprise

SpaceX Mission to Carry University Pathogen Research


Salmonella bacteria (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

12 December 2014. The next launch of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station will carry a set of specially-configured petri dishes testing the effect of microgravity on the virulence of salmonella bacteria. The research is the work of microbiologists at Arizona State University and engineers at University of Colorado in Boulder.

Salmonella bacteria are a major source of food poisoning in the U.S., causing 1 million cases each year, along with 19,000 hospitalizations and 380 deaths. Studying behavior of salmonella in space has immediate benefits for the health of astronauts, but can also benefit broader knowledge of the bacterium, since tests can be conducted without the effects of earth-bound gravity that may mask some of the microbe’s biochemical properties.

The tests will infect a number of tiny Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans  nematodes, a type of worm, with salmonella bacteria. C. elegans is a well-studied model organism that grows quickly, is translucent, and has a genome with half of its genes related to those of humans. The tests were designed in the lab of microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State in Tempe, and sponsored by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

The petri dishes are built into a specially-designed unit designed by BioServe Space Technologies, a lab in Colorado-Boulder’s engineering school. Earlier resupply missions to the International Space Station carried individual petri dishes, but BioServe says this mission will carry 6 petri dishes configured in a multiple-well casing that provides more uniform conditions.

The petri dishes will be monitored by automated video devices called ScanCams, also built by BioServe Space Technologies. The system will move three high-def cameras to predetermined points near the dishes to record the activity of the infected C. elegans. The video will be processed and transmitted to BioServe’s control center in Boulder, where the feeds will be shared with Nickerson’s lab in Tempe.

Earlier studies of microgravity on salmonella behavior conducted by Nickerson and Bioserve found evidence of increased virulence of the bacteria in space, but the samples were preserved in orbit and returned to Earth for later analysis. Being able to study the impact of microgravity in real time should provide a more accurate reading, by removing the delay and potential errors from reintroducing specimens to Earth’s gravity.

The new tests “will allow researchers to determine the ‘death curve’ of the infected nematodes and compare it with identical experiments being conducted on Earth,” says Bioserve’s director Louis Stodieck in a university statement.

The petri dishes and ScanCams will be loaded on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft for launch on 19 December from Cape Canaveral in Florida. After launching the Dragon into orbit, SpaceX is expected to try landing the Falcon 9 launch vehicle’s first stage on a floating barge, about the size of a football field, in the Atlantic Ocean. If successful, the landing in the ocean will give SpaceX a reusable vehicle for future launches.

Read more:

*     *     *

Comments are closed.