On Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, a rocket and spacecraft were launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia carrying tubes of bacteria and bacteriophage, the viruses that prey on bacteria. They are now on their way to the International Space Station (ISS).
The tubes of bacteria and phages will be super cooled so they are inactive. They will then be taken out of the freezer so they can carry out their normal biological processes in space conditions. Photo by Robin Davies.
According to information, scientists in the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW–Madison) Department of Biochemistry are hoping that by sending them into Earth’s orbit, we can learn more about how microbes respond to being in space. In preparing for a future in which long-term and commercial space travel are possible, researchers say it’s increasingly important to understand how the bacteria in and on humans – many essential for health – function in this environment, says Vatsan Raman, professor of biochemistry.
Using a protocol carefully crafted by the researchers, the astronauts on the ISS will perform a series of simple experiments to test the effects of space conditions on the microbes, such as microgravity and radiation, and on their interactions.
While bacteria and phage have been in space before because they reside on and in humans and other organisms, there haven’t been many sophisticated experiments on the effects that occur in space. The UW–Madison team’s experiments – supported by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) – could be some of the most sophisticated biochemistry and microbiology work ever done in space.
“We are interested in the broad differences between how biology performs on Earth versus in space, and we chose to work with E. coli bacteria and the phages that infect them because they are the simplest thing to test,” Prof. Raman explains. “What’s surprising is there is not a lot of data from controlled experiments done in space that can also be replicated on Earth and allow us to do comparisons.”
The real work – which will utilize knowledge and techniques from the laboratories of Biochemistry Professor Michael Cox, a collaborator on this project, and biochemistry collaborator Michael Sussman – begins when the samples are returned to Earth. Researchers are eager to analyze different aspects of the microbes and compare the data to experiments done on Earth. Their experiments will allow them to compare how quickly or slowly the microbes grow and interact, while other tests will compare the metabolism, genetic material, and a variety of other cellular processes to see if they were affected.
By deep-sequencing the microbes’ DNA, which provides a high-resolution view of the genetic code, researchers can look for differences between those that experienced radiation and those that did not. The researchers will also use a technology called mass spectrometry, a method of finding molecular identities of proteins based on molecular weights. This will also allow them to look for modifications that possibly occurred.
While small changes in DNA or other cellular mechanics are the most likely, they wonder if the phage, in a rare example, will gain a new function. Perhaps it might be mutated in a way that allowed it to infect a wider range of E. coli than just the strain it accompanied in space. With the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, researchers are turning to phage as a possible alternative to investigate.
No matter the findings, the researchers hope their experiments push the boundaries of the scientific work that is possible to execute in space. As NASA and other organizations conceive of more and more space travel, how microbes behave in this environment will become essential to understand because they play such an important role in human health.