Protecting Space from Bacteria
Mars and food science come together at the University of Idaho to solve a futuristic question: When we find life on other planets, will we know if it hitched a ride there on our own spacecraft?
NASA is famous for its clean rooms. The spaces where white-suited engineers and technicians assemble spacecraft are designed to ensure that they leave Earth as free as possible from contaminants, including bacteria.
The idea is that when explorations on alien worlds encounter life, scientists will be able to tell whether that life is native to the planet, or if it hitched a ride from Earth.
Before a craft is launched into the great unknown, scientists collect samples of any microbes that remain on its surface. The samples are stored at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, California, but a backup collection also makes its way to Moscow, where it’s stored in a minus-80-degree freezer that operates unobtrusively in Paszczynski’s lab in UI’s 75-year-old Food Science Building. Even when the frost-rimmed interior and multiple doors appear, the freezer looks about as exotic as a kitchen appliance. But should JPL’s collection ever succumb to a tsunami, earthquake or meteorite, Moscow may be called on to answer otherworldly questions.
Paszczynski and his students would be ready. His team has analyzed scores of samples of bacteria found on Mars-bound spacecraft.
A number of researchers and projects have come from biochemist Andrzej Paszczynski's lab in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Among them:
Aleksandra Checinska Sielaff ’13 earned her doctorate in environmental science from UI. Sielaff, who is now a researcher at Iowa State University, focused on how methods used to sterilize space-craft might be adapted for food safety.
An early method for sterilizing spacecraft relied on liquid carbon dioxide under pressure — better known as carbon dioxide supercritical fluid. It was thought that fluid could reduce bacterial contamination of chicken and other foods. Tests showed it to be less effective on foods than spacecraft because foods’ porous structure shielded the bacteria.
Stephanie Smith ’08, ’14, worked closely with Paszczynski while earning her master’s in microbiology and doctorate in environmental science. Her interest in microbes on spacecraft reinforced the close ties between the lab and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.
Smith is now a consumer food safety specialist with Washington State University Extension. While at UI, she received funding from the National Science Foundation to develop research-based experiences for K-12 students in Moscow.
Alissa Korsak ’11, ’16, who earned her bachelor’s in biology and doctorate in environmental science, worked in the lab with Smith. Korsak helped to identify microbes from the Mars-bound spacecraft, but she also explored how to open young minds to science.
Korsak now works at the Boise-based Discovery Center of Idaho, the largest volunteer-based venue in the state, which is dedicated to community-based science, technology, engineering and math education.
As part of her education at UI, she helped Smith conduct science outreach in Moscow. Modeled after Paszczynski’s spacecraft work, experiments challenged students to find life on extreme surfaces, such as sidewalks and freezers.
“It was a fun and meaningful experience,” Korsak said. “I think space research and all NASA programs lend an incredible opportunity to K-12 education in the form of current and engaging STEM content.”
Most of the bacteria — identified using DNA sequencing — belong to the genus Bacillus, which includes many species that promote human health and a few that don’t. Other common bacteria identified from the NASA samples were Staphylococcus — think Staph infections and flesh-eating bacteria. Bringing foreign bacteria to another planet would not be ideal.
“Basically we don’t want to contaminate this area with what we bring. That way when humans eventually arrive they will be able to sample those areas to see if life is there,” Paszczynski said. Discoveries of life in extreme environments — such as the North and South Poles and the Sonoran Desert in North America — make Paszczynski believe life exists beyond Earth.
“This is giving us more and more assurance that life is most likely there. If not on Mars, then perhaps on Europa,” Jupiter’s icebound moon, he said. “Life is so resilient, it is able to survive in unimaginable conditions.”
Article by Bill Loftus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences