Assisting NASA in biology mission, Stanford helps E. coli visit the final frontier

Jan 17, 2007
Assisting NASA in biology mission, Stanford helps E. coli visit the final frontier
E. coli were cultured in Petri dishes, placed in an apparatus the size of a breadbox and launched into orbit aboard a rocket. Credit: NASA

Banished from kitchen counters, E. coli, albeit a harmless variety, are taking to space. On Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006, bacteria hitchhiked into low-Earth orbit aboard an Air Force Minotaur 1 rocket that took off from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in an experiment to test the effects of space on living organisms.

The GeneSat-1 mission, a partnership of about 45 scientists from NASA Ames Research Center, Stanford, Santa Clara University, San Jose State University and the California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, could help scientists better understand the genetic damage and grave health problems to which humans might be exposed on long space flights.

"This is a toehold into the science of what space does to humans," said Stanford electrical engineering Professor Gregory Kovacs, who is principal investigator on the university's contract for the project.

When people spend a long time in microgravity, they can lose bone density, muscle tone and immune-system rigor. The radiation in space can be so damaging that by the time astronauts made the almost three-year trip to Mars, they would stand a high chance of getting cancer, according to a NASA statement.

By studying what happens to a model organism, E. coli, scientists aim to understand how space affects living things on a genetic level and hope to contribute to the development of treatments. The flight also will allow scientists to test the hardware for use in future experiments.

The two bacterial strains that will be launched in GeneSat-1 were derived from a strain called K-12 that has been used in research labs for more than 40 years, according to GeneSat-1 Lead Scientist Macarena Parra of Lockheed Martin, a contractor at NASA Ames. The K-12 strain and all its derivative strains lack the ability to make certain proteins required for its survival inside the large intestine. So even if humans were to ingest billions of cells, the bacteria could do no harm, she said. One of the strains in GeneSat is considered so safe that it is part of a science activity kit sold to middle and high schools.

To understand which genes are activated when E. coli endure microgravity and radiation, the scientists make genes that can glow in the dark when triggered. "You find a gene you'd like to study and fuse onto it this gene for green fluorescence," said Stanford electrical engineer Antonio Ricco, chief technologist for NASA's Astrobionics Program and an architect of the mission.

For example, if radiation damage occurs, the repair gene is triggered and glows, acting like a beacon to signal the scientists. "If you do this, you can make the organism be a living radiation meter," Kovacs said. Once the scientists know which genes are involved with radiation damage, they can work to design treatments.

E. coli is an ideal species for this type of experiment, Kovacs said. "The big thing is that we know [its] genome really well," he said. "And [the bacteria] can have many, many generations over a very short time." That way the scientists can watch space's effects play out in the genetic information passed from parent to offspring within days instead of decades.

Another plus to the mission is that it's small and inexpensive. The whole experiment is the size of a shoebox, and only 10 pounds. GeneSat-1 uses miniature technology called CubeSats—tiny cube-shaped satellites designed by Robert Twiggs, a consulting professor at Stanford.

The idea for GeneSat-1 arose when John Hines, the mission program manager and a Stanford alumnus, came across Twiggs' CubeSat webpage while at a meeting. Kovacs recalls, "John waved me over to his seat and whispered, 'Couldn't we put biological experiments on these?' I immediately said 'Yes!'"

The team constructed GeneSat-1 from three CubeSats. Because the little boxes are lightweight and compact, they don't cost much to put into space. "The total price tag on the project was about $8 million, which is relatively inexpensive for a space mission like this, where we've had to invent and build much of the technology from scratch," Ricco said.

But designing the project to fit snuggly in the satellite wasn't easy. The team crafted the mini lab to make sure the E. coli could live and reproduce in orbit, far from human tending.

"It's difficult enough to keep a closed container of E. coli alive on Earth," Kovacs said. "It's even harder in space. You have to keep them at the right temperature, and take out the trash," he said, referring to wastes the bacteria produce.

Inside the satellite, optical devices will measure the amount of green fluorescence to find out if the targeted genes are activated. As the satellite circles the earth, it will transmit data back to the GeneSat communications center over the SRI antenna located on the hills above the Stanford campus. Since Saturday, Ricco said, ham radio operators around the world have been receiving GeneSat-1's radio beacon, and GeneSat-1's primary transceiver is successfully sending data and receiving commands.

In biology, a critical aspect of understanding new phenomena is repeating the experiment several times, separated by weeks or months, to prove that the effect is real and to understand the statistical variations typical of living systems. "Getting human-tended science experiments into space is costly and too rare," Ricco said. "But with low-cost, frequent space access using unmanned hitchhiking satellite experiments, many more experiments can be done, and repetition of the most important experiments can become routine."

The biology experiment will begin within 15 days of the rocket launch, and will run for about four days. At that point, the bacteria will run out of food, but the satellite will stay in space and continue to make measurements for about a year, until its orbit begins to decay and it burns up in Earth's atmosphere.

If everything goes well, the project could give scientists insight into what goes wrong when living things travel in space. "It's a pretty long path from these initial studies to human treatments, but you've got to start somewhere," Ricco said.

Explore further: Bright points in Sun's atmosphere mark patterns deep in its interior

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The importance of neutrino research to physics

Apr 03, 2014

Neutrinos are interesting to physicists for some of the same reasons that pottery shards are interesting to archaeologists. Just as archaeologists study broken clay pieces to construct a story about the society ...

Fermi data tantalize with new clues to dark matter

Apr 03, 2014

( —A new study of gamma-ray light from the center of our galaxy makes the strongest case to date that some of this emission may arise from dark matter, an unknown substance making up most of the ...

Recommended for you

Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

18 hours ago

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… ...

Rosetta instrument commissioning continues

19 hours ago

We're now in week four of six dedicated to commissioning Rosetta's science instruments after the long hibernation period, with the majority now having completed at least a first initial switch on.

Astronaut salary

19 hours ago

Talk about a high-flying career! Being a government astronaut means you have the chance to go into space and take part in some neat projects—such as going on spacewalks, moving robotic arms and doing science ...

Red moon at night; stargazer's delight

Apr 16, 2014

Monday night's lunar eclipse proved just as delightful as expected to those able to view it. On the East Coast, cloudy skies may have gotten in the way, but at the National Science Foundation's National Optical ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

( —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Scientists tether lionfish to Cayman reefs

Research done by U.S. scientists in the Cayman Islands suggests that native predators can be trained to gobble up invasive lionfish that colonize regional reefs and voraciously prey on juvenile marine creatures.

Leeches help save woman's ear after pit bull mauling

(HealthDay)—A pit bull attack in July 2013 left a 19-year-old woman with her left ear ripped from her head, leaving an open wound. After preserving the ear, the surgical team started with a reconnection ...