Published: Dec. 6, 2018 By
International Space Station

International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Bacteria will be soon be under the microscope in outer space as four new CU Boulder-led biological experiments are set to begin aboard the International Space Station.

The research projects, which are supported by CU Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies, will examine how the human immune system changes as people get older, the danger that bacteria pose to mechanical equipment and more. Payloads for the four experiments launched Dec. 5 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and will berth at the space station on Saturday. 

BioServe is a research center in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences. The center’s engineers and scientists work to transform spacecraft in low-Earth orbit into high-tech laboratories for biological research. The team collaborates with astronauts to carry out experiments and design new equipment to function in the challenging environment of microgravity. 

Since it was founded in 1987, BioServe has helped to launch hundreds of space studies, many of which have focused on improving the health and safety of people—including astronauts on long journeys and ordinary citizens on the ground.

“It is exciting to impact human health in a positive way on Earth through research conducted in space,” said Stefanie Countryman, associate director of BioServe. 

The center’s partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers. Both undergraduate and graduate CU Boulder students are involved in BioServe research efforts.

The four new studies focus on:

Fungi in space

Researchers at NASA will explore how fungal cells belonging to the species Candida albicans grow in the absence of gravity. These fungi are normally harmless but can cause serious infections in people with compromised immune systems. That makes them a potential danger to astronauts who are more susceptible to disease because of the rigors of space travel.

Corrosive behavior

It’s not just humans at risk: Single-celled organisms pose a danger to electronic components and other equipment, too. An experiment led by the Texas-based company NALCO Champion will investigate how bacteria corrode carbon steel surfaces, both on Earth and in space. On the ground, such microbes can damage oil pipelines and other materials around the world, causing an estimated $485 billion to $1.5 trillion in losses every year.

Mouse astronauts

Like humans, rodents who spend long periods of time in space can exhibit signs of accelerated aging, including bone loss, declining heart health and more. In a long-running series of studies, researchers at the non-profit organization the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) have probed the impact of space travel on mice. Their findings could provide new clues to how scientists might safeguard the health of astronauts en route to Mars or treat the impacts of aging in older adults. 

Aging immune systems

A team led by the University of California, San Francisco will use the International Space Station to explore another impact of aging: immunosenescence, or the decreased ability of people to fight off disease as they get older. The group will study how human white blood cells and stems cells behave in microgravity with an eye toward better understanding how aging impacts immune system health and the body’s capacity to regenerate tissue.