Local Microbes to Blast into Space for Research at the International Space Station

The microbes they gathered were examined by the “microbiology team” in the laboratory of Dr. Jonathan Eisen at the University of California at Davis. The team selected 48 microbes, which, with approval from NASA,are to ride the SpaceX Falcon 9 to the Space Station for further research. The rocket is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on March 30, 2014.

The public will be able to follow Project MERCCURI as it continues over the next several months via the web site SpaceMicrobes.org. The site will include updates from the research on the Space Station including results of the “microbial playoffs” growth competition.  The site also features free interactive visualization tools, lesson plans for teachers, and even trading cards that include photos and the details of each microbe selected for the project, as well as their importance.

The microbe “Paenibacillus mucilaginosus” was found on SUE the T. Rex fossil skeleton at The Field Museum. For an image of the microbe and more information, see the trading card at the Space Microbes web site.

In addition to the research in space, thousands of additional samples collected by the public are being analyzed further at UC Davis and by the lab of Dr. Jack Gilbert at Argonne National Laboratory. The microbes found in these samples are being assayed using DNA sequencing technology,and the resulting data will be made available to the public and also integrated with results of the Earth Microbiome Project. Scientists hope to gain insights into what is living at the ISS, how microbes vary between different places on Earth and in space, and to compare growth of microbes on Earth and in microgravity.

“We are in the midst of a revolution in our ability to study the hidden world of microbes found throughout the planet,” said Dr. Jonathan Eisen, Professor at UC Davis and leader of the microBEnet (microbiology of the built environment network) team doing the microbiology side of Project MERCCURI. “One area of growing interest is in studying the microbes living right around us – in our buildings – on our phones – and elsewhere.  The Science Cheerleader group has allowed us to get thousands of people to not only think more about the microbes among us, but to also participate in a microbial diversity research project. And those people have helped us get more samples than we have been able to obtain previously.”

“A lot of people ask us *why* we're sending microbes into space,” said Dr. David Coil, a microbiologist at UC Davis.  “Understanding how microbes behave in microgravity is critically important for planning long-term manned spaceflight but also has the possibility of giving us new insight into how these microbes behave in built environments on Earth.”

“This initiative is not just about significant research,” said Darlene Cavalier, Founder of Science Cheerleader and SciStarter. “It’s about engaging the public in that research. Microbes that were collected locally are taking a ride on the International Space Station. They’re the subject of research by microbiologists and astronauts. We hope that inspires youngsters as well as adults to become more aware of and involved in science.”

Project MERCCURI is coordinated by Science Cheerleader, SciStarter.com, and UC Davis, in conjunction with the Argonne National Laboratory. The Project is made possible by Space Florida, NanoRacks, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.