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While in orbit, astronauts manipulated the sealed GAPs; at the same time, Collins performed the same actions with identical GAPs on Earth at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Collins Sends Bacteria Into Space Aboard Final Mission of Atlantis

The final mission of the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis, launched July 8, 2011, had some very interesting passengers: thousands of bacteria.

Cynthia Collins, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, led a series of experiments called Micro-2A that were aboard the shuttle during its final mission. The research seeks to understand how microgravity changes the way potentially dangerous bacteria grows. In particular, the research will examine how they form difficult-to-kill colonies called biofilms. The research has important implications for protecting astronauts while they are in space in enclosed and difficult-to-clean spaces, such as the International Space Station, or during extended space missions deeper into our solar system. It also provides new information in the fight against ever-more virulent bacterial infections such as staph, food poisoning, sepsis, and pneumonia.

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Collins’ team sent up 16 devices, called Group Activation Packs (GAPs), each containing eight vials of bacteria.

Partnering with Collins on the project are nanobiotechnology expert Jonathan Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and director of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and thin films expert Joel Plawsky, professor of chemical and biological engineering. The NASA Ames Research Center funded the experiment.

This was the second time that Collins’ research was included on the shuttle. Her research on bacteria also was aboard the shuttle mission that launched May 14, 2010. Collins has been analyzing the results of this previous work and will use this new series of experiments to test some of the results she has seen.

“We are clearly seeing altered biofilm formation during space flight,” she said. “There are some clear differences between the amount of biofilm formed in normal gravity and microgravity. These differences also appear to be organism dependent, with different organisms responding very differently to the environment in space.”

The bacteria that Collins included are Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus. These bacteria are responsible for more hospital-acquired infections than any other, according to Collins. The Centers for Disease Control place hospital-acquired infections such as those caused by these bacteria as the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control places hospital-acquired infections such as those caused by these bacteria as the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

Biofilms are complex, three-dimensional microbial communities. Most biofilms, including those found in the human body, are harmless. Some biofilms, however, have been shown to be associated with disease. Researchers like Collins are discovering that the bacteria within these colonies have very different properties, including increased resistance to antimicrobials, compared with bacteria not encased in a biofilm.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 5, Number 12, August 26, 2011
©2011 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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