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How well do microbes grow on the ISS?

To test variations in growth and biochemical activity, a science team set up Project MERCCURI. The team are based at the Jonathan Eisen Laboratory, University of California, Davis. To obtain a broad array of microorganisms the scientists called upon a team of citizen scientists to collect samples and submit them for consideration.

The key aspect was to explore how microorganisms associated with a human behave in space. This was to evaluate whether there is any danger of pathogens outgrowing beneficial bacteria and to see if there would be any consequences for long-distant space flights. The researchers were also interested in how beneficial microbes behave in zero-gravity conditions over prolonged periods of time.

The samples were gathered as part of a citizen science campaign. Keen amateur scientists gathered samples from a range of areas frequented by people, including inside and outside of buildings throughout the U.S. Perhaps the most interesting location sampled was the Liberty Bell.

Other interesting isolates were:

Yuri’s Night, Los Angeles: Kocuria rhizophila was collected on a camera at a Yuri’s Night Party with Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon.
Pop Warner Chittenango: Bacillus pumilus was collected on a Porta-Potty handle by Pop Warner Chittenango Bears cheerleaders
Oakland Raiders: Bacillus aryabhatti, collected on an Oakland Raiders’ practice football field

In the end 48 different microorganisms were shortlisted and sent on the SpaceX Falcon 9 to the ISS. The microbes were then studied under a variety of conditions.

The researchers found that, in general, the microbes behaved in the same way on ISS as they would on Earth. A few microbes behaved differently, and these are currently being subjected to analysis. The research has yet to be published.

In related news, scientists are busy exploring the impact of long-distance space travel on human physiology. This includes determining if space travel leads to a thinning of the skin and related health issues.

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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