Preliminary results are in for a science experiment we’ve been following (and participating in) on The Pulse, called Project MERCCURI. Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter.com, which promotes citizen science projects, joined us this week for an update. Here’s a transcription of her interview with Pulse host Maiken Scott.
Can you sum up the project for us?
Sure. Project MERCCURI is a study of how microbes behave on Earth and how they behave in space, in particular on the International Space Station. There were three areas of this research project that we were interested in, we being SciStarter, The Science Cheerleaders and UC Davis, the Eisen Lab. One is to understand the population distribution and behavior of 4,000 samples of microbes taken from shoes and cell phones all around the country, another was to compare the growth rates of microbes on Earth to those that we sent to the International Space Station, there were 48 of those. The third was to understand the types of microbes that are lurking on the International Space Station itself. All of this gets into looking at some data that would be important for long-term manned spaceflight.
So you sent 48 samples to space, what happened to them? What do we know so far?
We did have a slight hardware issue, which meant that these samples stayed frozen for nine months but as it turns out, 47 of them survived and grew quite well. One did not, unfortunately, from the Phillies dugout. But the other 47 are thriving in space.
One of the samples came from WHYY and was collected here. How did that sample do in space?
Well, that is one of five finalists right now in the running for what we’re calling the best tip off, so this is for the bacteria that starts growing right away. UC Davis researchers measured this by looking at the percentage increase in growth between time 0, which is when the astronauts pull this out of the freezer and start to examine this, and the first growth measurement one day later.
So, Darlene, generally speaking, what do scientists hope to gain from this experiment?
We have three different groups who are looking at different aspects of this research project. We have researchers from Argonne National Lab who are extremely interested in the 4,000 samples that were collected and not sent to space. They become part of what’s known as the Earth micro biome map. So this is creating a baseline measurement of types of bacteria, where they exist and then start to layer other data to start looking for correlations and patterns. It might be the first step towards looking at mental health correlations, asthma connections, so it’s a baby step towards that research. The other is what we’re looking at here in space with the differences in the growth rates. That and the third part, looking at the specific types off bacteria that exist on the space station right now, are really important in terms of understanding how bacteria behaves in space over time, as well. What the UC Davis researchers are starting to see here is there doesn’t appear to be a lot of difference between what happens with these safe bacteria that we sent to space compared to what’s happening back at the lab at UC Davis, which is good because these are very, very common types of bacteria. That’s why they were selected. As NASA starts to think about sending people to MARS, for example, understanding the behavior of common bacteria becomes a very important issue.
Because whoever is going to MARS will be dragging that bacteria along for a ride?
We get grossed out sometimes thinking about all the microbes that are on our shoes and our cell phones but these are not all bad guys, right?
No, in particular, the ones that were chosen to live on the International Space Station could not be bad guys because we didn’t want to make the astronauts sick. That would not have turned out so well. So, no, these are good and most bacteria is very, very good for you. You need it to live.
Darlene is the founder of SciStarter.com and a regular Pulse contributor.