December 5, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Faiza Peeran on why the citizen scientists of America collected bacteria to send into space

ISS shutterstock_233481142What happens when we send bacteria into space?

That’s the question that the team from Project MERCCURI, based in the United States, want to answer – with the help of the public.

The International Space Station (ISS) orbits approximately two hundred and forty miles above the surface of the Earth. There may only be six people on board, but they’re hardly alone.

As on Earth, the ISS is also home to billions of bacteria – and it’s only now that scientists are investigating what actually happens when microbes from Earth follow us into space.

“We were interested in how normal microbes behave in space,” explains Dr David Coil. Dr Coil is part of the team from UC Davis in California, who are involved in the project. “Our focus was not on microbes that cause disease, but the many beneficial and neutral microbes that surround us on a daily basis.”

To collect the samples of bacteria, Dr Coil and his team recruited the help of citizen scientists. Thousands of people across the US were involved in the initiative to gather the samples, which were collected from sports events and sites of historical interest, such as the Liberty Bell.

falcon 9 10006436753_aeeb8ed7f6_hThe team then decided on forty-eight types of microbes to investigate, which blasted off into space via the SpaceX Falcon 9 unmanned spacecraft, ready for further research on the ISS.

What did the results show? The majority of microbes sent up to space grew in very similar ways to how they grew on Earth. “That’s interesting from a long term spaceflight perspective because these are the microbes that we find around us in normal human built environments and it’s reassuring that they behaved more or less the same up there than they did here,” says Dr Coil.

Long-term manned spaceflight, such as travelling to Mars, currently involves a number of medical and psychological problems that could affect those who choose to make the expedition. As we depend on beneficial microbes to lead healthy lives, this result, although preliminary, is a small but encouraging step forward in the long journey to prepare mankind for its foray into space.

Aside from looking at the impact on spaceflight, a big part of Project MERCCURI was to engage the public and get them interested in experiments both on the ISS, and in microbiology.

“With this project, thousands of people contributed to research on the Space Station and at UC Davis, one of the leading microbiology research labs in the country,” says Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter and Science Cheerleader in the US, which helped lead the microbe collection effort. “Our goal is to spur even more people to get involved in significant science. “

Dr David Slawson, Director of OPAL, a UK-wide citizen science programme, thinks this initiative is a great way to engage people with science. “People love space and think that they will never a chance to be involved in a space mission, but they can,” he says. “I see citizen science as real ‘win, win’ for both people and science.”

A secondary part of the project is also currently in motion. As well as testing the bacteria sent up, astronauts also collected microbes from the ISS itself to send back down to Earth.

The team at UC Davis is comparing these microbes to those that commonly live around us, such as those in our homes. This has provided some humorous results. In terms of its microbe content, Dr Coil says the ISS “most looks like a pillow”.

A manned mission to the red planet may yet be a while off. One thing is for certain, however. If bacteria have anything to say about it, we won’t be going alone.

Faiza Peeran is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Images: International Space Station, orbiting the earth (Shutterstock); DANDE Day For SpaceX – Falcon 9 by Howard Ignatius (Flickr; Creative Commons)