The International Space Station is about to get many, many new visitors onboard. These unlikely space travelers won’t have their names in the history books, though they have come from somewhere near you. Maybe even from on you.
These new passengers aren’t people, but microbes. They’ve been collected by citizen scientists from all over the U.S. through Project MERCCURI. This collaboration has been taking sample swabs from well-known places such as the Liberty Bell and Al Roker’s weather wall. Other samples came from half-court at professional basketball games or the 50-yard-line from various National Football League stadiums.
Microbes from each 48 different colonies were split into two populations, one to stay in a lab on Earth, the other to fly aboard the Space-X Dragon capsule delivering supplies to the station later this month. The experiment will run for 9 days in microgravity before returning home. The growth rates will be compared between the two populations in a study of microbe growth mechanics and the effects of microgravity on microbes.
The 48 colonies were already selected from hundred upon hundreds of samples collected by citizen scientists. As many where collected from professional sporting events, they are considered to be “in the playoffs” to have made it this far. Project MERCCURI has put up “trading cards” for each of the 48 species. You can cheer for your favorite as they “compete” for the fastest and densest growing colonies throughout the experiment. One such sample collected by youth cheerleaders in San Diego may even be from a previously unknown species and genus.
The Project MERCCURI team has done an impressive job in keeping the sports analogies going to pique public interest in the project. The biggest contribution, however, of this project to science outreach is in the nature of the collection of microbes. Citizen scientists have been recruited at public events to help take part in the actual sampling process. In this way, they get to do a bit of the scientific research process themselves. If only we could all accompany them to space, too.
Another part of Project MERCURRI is collecting microbes from the screens of cellphones and soles of shoes of people in all geographic locations. I was recently at Science Online Together in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I got to swab my own shoe and phone, after singing a brief consent form, of course. Though not selected for competition on the space station, this side of the project will look at the geographical distribution of microbe populations, and even how that differs from your shoe to your phone (which is a good proxy for hands and… face).
One of the biggest lessons of this project is that microbes are EVERYWHERE. They vastly outnumber every other living thing on this planet, and they microbes on and in your body even outnumber your own cells by a factor of ten, amounting to 1-3 percent of your body mass. YOU are a bit of THEM. So it’s no wonder that they play such an important role in our lives, from digestion to disease. Understanding the microbiome is important to science, and understanding the importance of this science should be a natural outcome of participating in this project. In this way, the citizen scientist both gives (their samples) and receives (a new awareness of their own micro-neighbors).
So go ahead, check out the contestants, maybe pick one from your hometown and cheer them on while they race against the others up in space next month!