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Why SpaceX Is About to Launch Dinosaur Microbes and Toilet Germs Into Space

A collection of Earth microbes are going to be grown in space.

by Becky Ferreira
Apr 18 2014, 5:10pm
Sue the T-Rex. Image: Flickr/OnFirstWhols

What's a surefire way to make a SpaceX launch even more exciting? Throw some dinosaur germs into the mix too. Microbes swabbed from one of our star dinosaur specimens, Sue the T-Rex, will be sent to the International Space Station on a Falcon 9 today (weather permitting, of course).

This giant leap for microbe kind is the brainchild of Project MERCCURI, an interdisciplinary project that fuses microbial research with public outreach. The point of the whole thing is to observe how microbial samples taken from different locations react to microgravity—a worthy experiment, considering how a cherry tree flown to space bloomed eight years early. The growth rates of each species will be monitored with a microplate reader, and will be compared to a control group in a UC Davis lab.

It's definitely not the first time microbial behavior has been studied in space, but this project is undeniably more playful than previous endeavors. The project is clearly designed to have a broad appeal, with an emphasis on the experiments being “microbial playoffs in...SPAAAAACE!”

Sue's Paenibacillus mucilaginosus germs will be competing against a number of other worthy challengers, recruited from diverse locations. Because the Science Cheerleaders are heavily involved in the project, the bulk of the samples were taken from football stadiums and fields, but some hail from more exotic locales. Pantoea eucrina was swabbed off of the Mercury Orbiter at the Smithsonian. Bacillus amyloliquefaciens calls the Liberty Bell home. And Leucobacter chironomi was raised in a toilet.

You can scroll through the 48 different competitors on the project's “sports card” page. The spacefaring microbes will be competing for three different football-themed awards. The Best Sprinter will go to the fastest growing microbe community, the Best Huddle will be awarded to the sample with the highest density, and whichever sample “takes off growing like crazy from the start” will snag the Best Tip Off award. 

Naturally, we had to ask Jonathan Eisen—a Project MERCCURI's team members and professor of evolutionary biology—which micro-athletes he has his money on: “I think the likelihood of me being able to pick those winners has similar odds to someone winning Warren Buffet's March Madness contest,” he told me.

“I think I will pick my favorites by a randomization process," he said. "That being said, I want the one that came from the events involving kids.” 

As zany as the whole project makes itself out to be, it's not just a publicity stunt. The spacefaring microbes will be constantly monitored and compared to their counterparts on Earth. The project is not only about sending Earth microbes into space—it's also about bringing those microbes living on the ISS back to Earth.

“One key thing we will also be doing is getting the astronauts to sample the microbes on the space station with cotton swabs,” Eisen said. “We are very excited to get some samples from the ISS as part of this project. I think we will also end up sequencing the genomes of all these organisms and seeing if anything in the genome relates to their activity in space, or if it relates to where they were isolated.”

While it's great to hear that we'll be getting some useful science out this experiment, I'll admit it: They had me at “dinosaur germs in space.”