A soil bacterium we swabbed last spring on the set of Twin Cities’ Kare11 News is headed to the International Space Station! Even though we collected it here in Minnesota, Streptomyces kanamyceticus (we’ll call it S.kan for short) was first isolated from dirt in Japan.
It’s a very cool bacterium. Not only does it grow in really interesting colonies like the ones you see in the photo below, but it produces an antibiotic called Kanamycin that’s widely use in research, industry and medicine. Our #MinnesotaMicrobe takes off on March 16th from Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX-3 rocket! Follow the mission on Project MERCURRI’s website, here on my blog, or using the #spacemicrobes hashtag on Twitter.
After we sent our sample off in the mail, it was swabbed onto bacterial growth medium and these cool little colonies were grown by the scientists from Project MERCURRI, alongside other samples swabbed from NFL and NBA stadiums, NASA spacecraft, and even from a candy jar at Kare11’s sister NBC studio at the Today Show. Around 40 of the samples were chosen to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) for a “Superbowl” of microbes. Scientists want to study how the bacteria grow and change in space and want to get the public excited about the project.
Microbes behave oddly out in space, and when humans exit Earth’s atmosphere, we carry microscopic inhabitants along with us. Tiny terrestrials (mostly bacteria) outnumber our bodies’ own cells by about ten to one, and microbes too small to see with the naked eye cover everything you around you, assuming you don’t live in a sterile bubble.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a funny little bacterium that smells like grapes and loves water, grows differently in microgravity. These bacteria form slime layers called biofilms and can cause problems for extraterrestrial toilets and water systems, like the ones on the International Space Station (ISS). Here on Earth, P. aeruginosa can make people who have been badly burned and people with cystic fibrosis (CF) really sick.
NASA also discovered that spending time on the International Space Station made Salmonella bacteria, which cause food poisoning, more virulent. In other words, they can make you sicker.
By studying what happens to terrestrial bacteria in space, scientists can discover new ways to fight infectious disease on Earth and hope to prevent mechanical and medical disasters on future space missions. Microbes may even offer ways to clean up waste in space or generate new medications mid-mission. After all, it will take a long time to get to Mars, and it may be a one-way trip for the first humans to travel there!
If you want to make your own microbial growth plates at home to see what’s growing around your house, you can find directions and a video on how to do it here. In the next week or so, I’ll post instructions for a cool new microbiology experiment that I’ve been thinking about.
If you’ve done an experiment where you drip water onto a penny, or made Tie Dye Milk, you know what surface tension looks like here on Earth. How does it look in space?
Here’s an amazing video demonstrating how the surface tension of water looks in zero gravity on the international space station. Fascinating!