Germs in Spaaaace!

by Gabrielle DeMarco on August 3, 2009



It has been proven. We are not alone in the universe. There are millions of life forms in outer space.

The problem is that we put them there and now we don’t really know how to control them.

Floating along with and inside our astronauts are literally little green men (well technically they are mostly asexual). They are microorganisms, including nasty things like staph.  And they don’t stop multiplying in microgravity. To the contrary, studies are now showing that they become more virulent.  And anywhere there are people, there is bacteria and when bacteria is let loose on say the International Space Station, mixed with a little water vapor from the calm breathing of an engineer on the job, they start to develop biofilms (a microbial metropolis if you will)…on EVERYTHING! These microorganisms are not fettered by mere gravity and can form on the top, bottom, or even inside objects in the microgravity of the Space Shuttle or Space Station or even the astronaut.

Professors Cynthia Collins, Jonathan Dordick, and Joel Plawsky are being tasked by NASA to start looking into these pesky and – in their defense – often beneficial organisms in space and how exactly their unfettered growth can be stopped.

In the spirit of interdisciplinary innovation, each researcher brings an important component to the biofilm-coated table. Collins’ research focuses on microbial communities – how they grow, what they are made of, how the individual organisms, communicate with each other. Dordick is the chemist in this equation and Plawsky the materials expert. Together they can grow, analyze, and stop the growth of a microbial colony using a mix of biology (to grow the microbes in the first place), chemistry (mixing enzymes that kill or stop the spread of the microbes), and materials science (to build the platform that the enzymes sit upon).

Their plan is to get a series of microbial communities and antimicrobial surfaces into space on an upcoming Shuttle mission. Currently, they are in the first stage of their research. They are simulating the effects of microgravity in small centrifuges within the Rensselaer labs and monitoring their growth and investigating various materials surfaces and enzymes for favorable antimicrobial tendencies. You will surely hear a lot more about their work should it make it on a mission. And Rensselaer will have yet another product of an RPI education in space (a few million actually).