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Stanford University Puts E. Coli In Orbit

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Orbiting the Earth in a deluxe space laboratory aboard satellite GeneSat-1, the E. Coli bacteria was launched into Earth's orbit on Friday, NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field reports.

While E. coli can cause big problems on Earth, scientists at Stanford University say this particular strain is not harmful. They believe studying the model organism's behavior may help determine the effect outer space conditions have on human beings.

According to scientists at Stanford, when humans spend a long time in microgravity they may lose bone density, muscle tone, have decreased immune system performance and may even suffer genetic side effects.

If astronauts made the three-year long trip to Mars, they would have a high chance of getting cancer, according to a statement made by NASA.

If scientists determine which E. coli genes are impacted by radiation in outer space, they may be one step closer to determining a proper course of action to protect astronauts.

In order to determine which genes are impacted when E. coli endure microgravity and radiation, scientists have fused fluorescence on to the E. coli genes, causing them to glow if they are impacted by outer space radiation. "If you do this you can make an organism be a living radiation meter," said Stanford electrical engineering professor Gregory Kovacs.

Since E. coli's genome is well known to scientists and since the bacteria can grow many generations over a short time, it was a natural candidate for this experiment, according to scientists.

However Kovacs said Stanford's scientific team had to design a cushy home for the bacteria because "It's difficult enough to keep a closed container of E. coli alive on Earth. It's even harder in space. You have to keep them at the right temperature, and take out the trash," said Kovacs in reference to the waste the bacteria produce.

The E. coli will live unattended in a shoebox-sized cube that weighs only ten pounds because according to Antonio Ricco, chief technologist for NASA's Astrobionics Program and an architect of the mission, "getting human-tended science experiments into space is costly and too rare."

"But with low-cost frequent space accessing using unmanned hitchhiking satellite experiments many more experiments can be done and repetition of the most important experiments can become routine," said Ricco.

Sending the bacteria into outer space cost only $8 million, which is according to Ricco, "relatively inexpensive for a space mission like this, where we have had to invent and build much of the technology from scratch."

The E. coli experiment will begin within 15 days of the GeneSat-1 launch and run for about four days at which point the E. coli will run out of food and likely die, according to Stanford University scientists.

GeneSat-1 will be in orbit taking space measurements for about a year until its orbit begins to decay and it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere.


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