MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. - An experiment - named Micro-6 -developed in collaboration with NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., will begin its journey to the International Space Station Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012.
The experiment will provide new insights into how spaceflight affects the human body and the growth of yeast, as well as how to better manage and treat infections in space and here on Earth. Future astronauts on long-term space missions in low-Earth orbit to other planets and beyond will need to understand how to prevent illnesses during space travel.
"Although astronauts are healthy individuals, exposure to spaceflight affects their immune system and may reduce their ability to respond to infection," said Sheila Nielsen-Preiss, associate research professor at Montana State University, Bozeman, Mont., and principal investigator and designer of the Micro-6 experiment.
When our immune systems are stressed, yeast that normally helps us maintain a healthy personal ecosystem - called Candida albicans - can grow out of control. When that happens, the yeast becomes so plentiful that infections can result in the mouth, throat, intestines, and genitourinary tract.
Researchers chose Candida albicans because it is very well understood and allows them a broad set of benchmarks, including the sequence of the entire genome, with which they can compare results. By comparing cells grown in microgravity to cells grown innormal gravity, scientists will determine the susceptibility of the yeast to an antimicrobial agent.
Micro-6 will ride along with approximately 1,000 pounds of supplies for the space station and its crew on the Space Exploration Technology Corp (SpaceX)'s Falcon 9 vehicle. The Hawthorne, Calif.,-based company's rocket will lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Once aboard the space station, a crew member will begin the experiment by increasing the incubator temperature to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and then activate the experiment mixing the Candida with a liquid to help them grow. After 24 to 50 hours, depending on the sample, crew members will push the plunger deeper to add a chemical to stop the growth of the yeast and complete each experiment.
After the yeast return to Earth from space, Nielsen-Preiss will examine changes to the genetics within the organism. The investigation will help researchers understand if the yeast is more virulent after exposure to a microgravity environment and, most importantly for future treatment, how the organism has changed to become more infectious. Identifying this change potentially could lead to development of more effective antibiotic treatments.
"On Earth, life has evolved over millions of years in a 1g environment," said Macarena Parra, a project scientist for Lockheed Martin at Ames, who provides scientific guidance and direction for the study on the space station. "In space, living systems have to adjust to a different environment. Without gravity, microorganisms become more virulent, biofilms form more easily, and the immune system tends to get compromised. So, the more we know about the effects of living in microgravity, the better it is for humans in space."
The International Space Station Research Project Office and Space Biosciences Division at Ames collaboratively developed this experiment, which is funded by the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Washington. BioServe Space Technologies affiliated with the University of Colorado, Boulder provided critical technology for the experiment.
For more information about science on the International Space Station, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/science
For more information about the Space Biosciences Division at Ames, visit: http://spacebiosciences.arc.nasa.gov