The citizen science project, called Project MERCURRI, is designed to compare microbes from different environments on Earth both to each other and to those found on the International Space Station. All together, 48 microbial species were selected to blast into orbit aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 shuttle to the International Space Station for research later this month.
One of the microbes selected for space flight, Paenibacillus mucilaginosus, was discovered to be living on the surface of – you guessed it – SUE, the T. rex! P. mucilaginosus is a bacteria that is widely used in agricultural fertilizer, since it naturally produces substances that enhance plant growth. Scientists on the International Space Station hope to study P. mucilaginosus as it compares to microbes found on other landmarks, like the Liberty Bell, and in places such as professional sports stadiums, and schools. They also hope to gain an understanding of the ways in which microbes from Earth compare to those found on the space station, since understanding which microbes thrive in space and how they behave differently will be important for planning long-term spaceflight. The research will even include a growth competition in zero gravity! Perhaps we also will gain some insight as to what P. mucilaginosus was doing for SUE at The Field Museum!
Where do cheerleaders come in? The project was led by the Science Cheerleaders, a group comprised of current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing careers in science or technology. As a result of their efforts, microbe samples were collected by thousands of people from across the United States, and gathered in the laboratory of Dr. Jonathan Eisen at the University of California, Davis for analysis. There, the microbiology team decided which species were to ride the space shuttle for further research.
Those that did not make it to outer space will be analyzed further at UC Davis and the Argonne National Laboratory using DNA sequencing technology, to see what other information can be learned from the microbial communities here on Earth.
While scientists don’t necessarily have a specific question for any of these microbes, they do hope to gain insights into which microbes are living at the International Space Station, and how microbes vary between different places on Earth and in space. They also hope to find out whether there are any differences in their rate of growth in a zero gravity environment. The goal of Project MERCURRI itself is to engage the public in significant scientific research, and to provide a new and exciting platform for that engagement to take place.
You can follow Project MERCURRI via the website, spacemicrobes.org, which will include updates from the research taking place aboard the International Space Station (including the results of the zero gravity growth competition) and many resources for educators.