Collins and her team will send up 16 devices, called Group Activation Packs (GAPs) and each containing eight vials of bacteria, aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis.
will be some very interesting passengers on the final mission of the
NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis scheduled to launch July 8, 2011: thousands
Collins, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at
Rensselaer, is leading a series of experiments called Micro-2A that will
be aboard the shuttle during its scheduled 12-day 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
with Collins on the project are nanobiotechnology expert Jonathan
Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological
Engineering at Rensselaer and director of the Rensselaer Center for
Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, and thin films expert Joel
Plawsky, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological
Engineering. The NASA Ames Research Center is funding the experiment.
is the second time that Collins’ research will be included on the
shuttle. Her research on bacteria was also 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.
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 will include are Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus.
These bacteria are responsible for more hospital-acquired infections
than any other, according to Collins. The Center 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.
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.
and her team will send up 16 devices, called Group Activation Packs
(GAPs) and each containing eight vials of bacteria, aboard the shuttle.
The GAPs and other hardware used by the Collins and her team were
developed by BioServe Space Technologies. While in orbit, astronauts
will begin the experiment by manipulating the sealed GAPs and combining
the bacteria with nutrients and a surface on which they can form
biofilms. At the same time, Collins will perform the same actions with
identical GAPs on Earth at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After
the shuttle returns, her team will compare the resulting biofilms to see
how the behavior of bacteria and development of biofilms in
microgravity differs from the Earth-bound control group.
addition, the research team will also test if a newly developed,
antimicrobial surface — developed by Dordick at Rensselaer — can help
slow the growth of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus,
or MRSA, on Earth and in microgravity. Actual MRSA, the bacteria
responsible for antibiotic-resistant infections, will not be used for
the safety of those on board. A different and safer strain of bacteria
with similar properties will serve as a proxy. The new surface developed
by Dordick utilizes an enzyme found in nature and kills 100 percent of
MRSA within 20 minutes of contact.
new technology marries carbon nanotubes with lysostaphin, a naturally
occurring enzyme used by non-pathogenic strains of staph bacteria to
defend against staph growth.
The resulting nanotube-enzyme biomaterial can be mixed with any number
of surface finishes. In tests, it was mixed with ordinary latex house
paint. More information on the surface can be found at: http://news.rpi.edu/update.do?artcenterkey=2759 .
have been shown to have an increased susceptibility to infection while
in microgravity, making a deeper understanding of how these bacteria
behave in space of particular importance, according to Collins. In
addition to its importance in planning future space missions, the
research also has important applications here on Earth. The conditions
in space are similar to those produced within the human body on several
levels. Understanding how bacteria thrive in space may also provide
insight into how they develop once they enter the human body.
For additional information on Collins’ research, go to www.rpi.edu/~collic3/Cynthia_Collins.
More information on Collins previous shuttle experiment can be found at http://news.rpi.edu/update.do?artcenterkey=2723