Montana State University

Russian rocket carries experiment to be analyzed at MSU

September 14, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- An experiment that's aimed at healthy space travel and involves Montana State University scientists and students is now orbiting the earth on a Russian space capsule.

Launched Friday, Sept. 14, from Kazakhstan, the experiment involves common contaminants that hitch rides into space and may threaten astronauts' health, MSU microbiologist Barry Pyle said before leaving Sept. 5 for Moscow. Revamped from two years ago, the experiment is scheduled to orbit for 12 days on the unmanned Soviet Foton-M3 mission and land Sept. 26 in northern Kazakhstan or southern Russia.

Samples from the completed experiment will go to Moscow for preliminary processing by Pyle and Tresa Goins, assistant research professor in microbiology, and then to MSU where they will be analyzed by three undergraduate students and research associate Susan Broadaway. The students are Chelsea Crandell of Scobey, Aaron Smith of Havre, and Kien Lim of Malaysia.

The first samples are expected to arrive at MSU the first week of October, Pyle said. More samples should arrive in November.

MSU and NASA want to know how space affects six strains of bacteria and one kind of fungus that often accompany astronauts into space without their knowing it, said Pyle who studies the long-term effects of space travel. In a variety of tests conducted simultaneously in space and on the ground, the researchers will examine what happens to the exchange of chromosomes among the bacteria, for example. They will also see how microgravity affects ordinary mutation rates. The outcome may explain the ability of bacteria to cause disease or resist antibiotics in space.

"It appears that crew members are generally healthy and able to face the challenges of stress, microgravity and radiation," Pyle said. "Because of this, they haven't run into any problems that I know of with the efficacy of antibiotics and other medications. However, long duration flight, such as going to Mars, may be a different matter. This is why there is still some interest in determining effects of space flight on microorganisms."

Pyle's Russian counterparts sent a similar experiment into space in 2005, but the space capsule was five to 10 degrees too cool for the experiment, Pyle said. The temperature was fine for the snails, geckos and newts onboard, but not for the Streptomyces lividans bacteria being studied by teams from Russia and MSU. The bacteria didn't grow as fast as it should have, and that affected the outcome of the experiment.

To rectify the problem, the Russian team enclosed the current experiment in a container that had its own temperature controls. The team also added the fungus and five strains of bacteria to its original experiment. One of the newcomers is S. coelicolor. Goins said its genetic sequence is already known, which makes it easier to interpret results.

Pyle added that the Streptomyes species are more likely than some other organisms to respond to microgravity and radiation with genetic changes, or mutations. "Also, although they are bacteria, they have some characteristics that are similar to higher organisms."

Pyle said he went to Moscow ahead of time to observe the Russians as they prepared and packed their experiment. The experiment was then sent to Kazakstan where it was loaded into the Foton space capsule. Goins will help process the flight and ground control samples after orbit.

MSU is collaborating on the Russian mission, partly because the United States shuttle was grounded for a significant time and partly because the U.S. is now using its shuttle to carry people and supplies to the International Space Station, Pyle said. Astronauts still conduct experiments, but NASA is emphasizing the completion of the space station, he added.

"NASA works quite closely with the Russian Space Agency because they have launch and space craft opportunities that have not been available in the United States," Pyle said.

MSU's experiment was funded by NASA and follows more than 20 years of collaboration between the university and space agency, Pyle said. Fifteen undergraduate students, three graduate students and three postdoctoral researchers have been involved in their joint projects over the years. Pyle and Goins said they have gone on to pursue a variety of interests. Some have gone on to graduate school. Others are in medical or biomedical careers or continuing to do research.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu