It's out of this world

11th April 2014 at 01:00
Young scientists blast their microbe experiments into space

Do antibiotics work in space? You have probably never thought about it, but if we are to be the spacetravelling species that scientists and business people (Richard Branson and Elon Musk chief among them) wish us to be, the answer to this question is pretty important.

Surprising, then, that it was left to a group of teenagers to pose this query. They did so as part of the International Space School Educational Trust's annual Mission Discovery programme, which gathers students together to learn about space exploration and explore experiments concerned with it.

During the one-week programme, run in association with King's College London, students learned about various aspects of biomedical science in space. The aim was for them to use this knowledge to think up experiments that could be sent to the International Space Station. At the end of the week, two winning experiments were selected by a judging panel that included scientists from King's, an astronaut and a former Nasa astronaut trainer.

The antibiotics question formed the basis of one of the experiments, designed by Mahdi Baksh and Amin Habib of Morpeth School in London; Phoebe Tupper, Emily Yeomans and Deanna Middleton of Gumley House Convent School, Middlesex; and Laurence Cook of Hampton School, London. The second experiment, which examined whether slime mould grows three-dimensionally in space despite the lack of gravity, was designed by Siobhan Gnanakulendran, Frederika Cole, Laurenda Attah-Wegbe, Alfie Dent, Daniel Roth and Colin Taylor, all from Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College in London.

For the antibiotics question, small filter papers inoculated with different concentrations of antibiotic were placed on top of Petri dishes containing agar coated in E. coli. Ordinarily, we would expect to see a ring of inhibition of bacterial growth around each filter paper - the bigger the diameter of the ring, the more effective the antibiotic.

As for the slime mould, the question was whether it could grow three-dimensionally through air in microgravity. We know terrestrial slime mould can do this across a solid surface, so it is important for Nasa to have this information in case of future contamination.

King's scientists worked with the students for many months to ensure that their experiments were workable within the microgravity environment of the space station. Then it was time for lift-off. On 9 January 2014, the experiments were launched into space from Wallops Island in Virginia, US, aboard Cygnus, an unmanned resupply craft. This was a historic moment: experiments designed by UK school students had never before been sent to space.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata (pictured, right), of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, was assigned to the experiments and took astonishing photos over several days to track the growth of the E. coli and the slime mould in their respective Petri dishes.

So, what happened? The results suggest that whereas the E. coli thrived less well in microgravity than on Earth (although factors affecting these results make the discovery unreliable), the slime mould grew much better. However, the slime mould did not grow three-dimensionally.

For the students, this has been a life-changing experience. Their record of sending the first UK school experiments to space can never be broken, bringing home the Mission Discovery message that anything is possible.

Dr Julie Keeble is a lecturer in pharmacology at King's College London

Top 10 resources on microbes

1 Student teachers

Get classes to take charge of their own learning with these detailed fact sheets, which enable each child to learn about a different microbe and teach the rest of the class.


2 Microbe managers

Do your students know the difference between bacteria, viruses and fungi? They will after these exercises, which explore the positive and negative effects of each.


3 Mould matters

A highly engaging and informative video on mould - that might be best saved for lessons after lunch.


4 Revising microbes

Revisit the basics with these revision sheets that provide a firm base from which to launch further study.


5 Fungus fortune

Discover how grass-cutter ants use fungi to their advantage in this BBC Nature video.


6 Grow your own

Students get hands-on in this lesson about how to grow microbes safely.


7 Plotting preserves

Present a useful lesson on food preservation with this detailed plan and resources.


8 Competing knowledge

This Top Trumps-style card-sort activity gets students competing to showcase their microbial knowledge.


9 Doctored documents

Students turn doctor by using their knowledge of microbes to diagnose patients in this case study activity.


10 Immunity insight

Introduce the immune system with this presentation explaining the role of antibodies and vaccines.


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