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Microbes from the sweat mop at a Kings game.

UC Davis teams with cheerleaders to launch microbes into space

Published: Friday, Mar. 14, 2014 - 3:25 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 16, 2014 - 9:19 am

A project that brings together cheerleaders, lab microbiologists and a set of microbes destined for space?

It has the makings of a B-grade sci-fi movie.

However, this odd grouping has nothing to do with Hollywood. Instead, it’s all about science – of the microbial kind.

At the end of the month, a set of 48 microbes – six of them culled from Northern California – will travel, live and be studied aboard the International Space Station. It took the interest of professional cheerleaders, UC Davis microbiologists and the good graces of NASA to get it done.

The unusual project is led by UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen, with the effort spurred by Science Cheerleader, a group of science-focused current and former cheerleaders for NBA and NFL teams.

The goals of the project are to discover how microbes, which are single-cell organisms, react and grow in microgravity – a state of weightlessness – and to see what microbes are found on the space station. A side goal: Spreading the word on the charms of science.

The microbes monitored in space will be compared with equivalents grown at UC Davis and Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.

Six of the 48 microbe samples were taken from north state locations, including the 50-yard line of Candlestick Park, second base at AT&T Park and at Coliseum in Oakland. Closer to home, microbe samples were culled from a sweat mop at a Sacramento Kings game, as well as the Cal Aggie stadium and a residential toilet in Davis.

Samples from outside the region came from the Liberty Bell and the Ben Franklin statue in Philadelphia, among other sites.

Originally, many hundreds of microbes were collected, but some were deemed unsafe for space.

“We can only send ones that are not dangerous,” said David Coil, a microbiologist at UC Davis working on the research project. “NASA has this thing about us not killing their astronauts.”

“We’re interested in how these micro-organisms grow in microgravity,” Coil said. “There is some evidence that some microbes behave differently in space – some grow in different shapes and types of colonies in space.”

Some virulent microbes have become even more virulent in microgravity, he said. As a result, the behavior of microbes in space is of great interest to microbiologists

Some microbes have shown to be extra-resilient survivors in space – like Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common bacterium that causes disease in animals and humans. That microbe forms a protective layer called biofilm around itself in microgravity. “These films look different is space from what they look like on Earth,” Coil said.

The project marks the first time microbiologists team up with with Science Cheerleader, an organization started in 1991 by Darlene Cavalier, a former cheerleader for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, and citizen science advocate.

Cavalier’s organization includes 275 current and former cheerleaders who are pursuing science and technology careers. It aims to promote science and the involvement of citizens in science and science-related policy.

She initiated the space project during a chance meeting with UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen two years ago. “I was learning about his work and he mine. ... It was almost like peanut butter and jelly,” said Cavalier.

Both grew keen on combining their organizations for a competition whose winners would get a research spot on the International Space Station. It did not hurt that former Houston Texans cheerleader and Science Cheerleader member Summer Wagner works at NASA as an aerospace engineer. Along the way, Wendy Brown got involved. Brown is a former Kings cheerleader who now cheers for the Raiders. She is also a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering at UC Davis.

After UC Davis microbiologists showed interest and applied for a research spot, theirs was selected as one of eight projects that would get the chance to do research on the space station. The competition was sponsored by Space Florida and NanoRacks LLC, which rents research space on the space station from NASA.

One novel part of the research is the collection of microbes that exist on the space station. Astronauts will take samples of surfaces with cotton swabs. Those samples will be returned to Earth when astronauts touch back down at a landing site in Kazakhstan, Eisen said.

“This kind of research has been done in small amounts in space before, but the technology has changed so much in the last year,” said Eisen, who has consulted on several experiments in space.

The research on the space station swabs will be the first of its kind, given that UC Davis now has access to technology that will allow the kind of DNA analysis that was not available in previous studies on the microbial environment of space missions, Eisen said. “This used to be very expensive.”

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.

Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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