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International Space Station to Use Lawrence Livermore Lab System to Analyze Microbes

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) plan to use LLNL's microarray-based biological detection system as part of a project to analyze microbes aboard the International Space Station.

Researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA's Ames Research Center, NASA's Johnson Space Center, and LLNL have received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from NASA to molecularly characterize microbes found in the International Space Station. As part of those efforts, they will use the Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) to "provide a survey of the microbial profiles inside the International Space Station and to evaluate the possibility of the presence of pathogens that could be harmful to the astronauts' health," LLNL Biologist and Project Principal Investigator Crystal Jaing said in a statement.

The LLMDA is a DNA-based detection system that does not require sample cultures. It takes about a day to process samples and provides about 50- to 100-fold more coverage than traditional culture-based methods. Since it was developed in 2008, the LLMDA has been used to analyze data in various contexts such as for assessing infant vaccines' purity, detecting the plague, and learning more about combat wounds from soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The version of the system that will be used for space station analysis can detect 12,609 species, including 6,906 bacteria, 4,776 viruses, 414 fungi, 143 protozoa, and 370 archaea, according to LLNL. Its use will help researchers ensure that there are no microbes in the space station that could be harmful to the crew's health, said Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a senior research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We can have countermeasures once we know what astronauts are breathing in and breathing out," he said in a statement. "Beyond the microbes affecting the crew, we need to know what's in the environment and is riding on the cargo."

This project, called Microbial Tracking-2, is a follow-on to NASA's Microbial Tracking-1 project which is currently sampling and studying airborne and surface populations of microorganisms aboard the International Space Station. Microbial Tracking-2 is the first to merge research on both the crew and the environment inside the space station, LLNL said.

The researchers plan to collect preflight, inflight, and post-flight samples for analysis. Specifically, they will collect 18 air samples and 24 surface wipes and some 264 crew samples including mouth, saliva, and skin samples. JPL researchers will handle sample pre-processing and DNA extraction, while LLNL and the Johnson Space Center will manage the analysis.

JPL will also use traditional culture techniques and DNA sequencing to determine which microbes are alive, the researchers said. Meanwhile, LLNL researchers will search for virulent or antibiotic-resistant genes using the LLMDA and sequencing.

The scientists plan to collect preflight crew samples in the fall and inflight samples in spring 2017.