Bacterial physiology and metabolism in space environment

Bacterial space flight experiments

With the growing interest for long haul flights, it becomes important to characterize the behavior of bacteria under spaceflight conditions including cosmic radiation and microgravity. The main objective of this program is to study the effects of space conditions such as cosmic radiation and weightlessness on metabolic processes in cultivated bacteria.

Since the first space flight of Frank De Winne in 2002, our laboratory has conducted several space flight experiments aboard the International Space Station to analyses the physiological, metabolic and genetic changes in bacteria when grown in space capsules. In addition, we investigate also the gene transfer between different bacterial species in a space environment.

SCK•CEN was in 2001 invited to participate in the Belgian taxi flight with an experiment that would fly with the Belgian astronaut Ir. Frank De Winne in November 2002. The experiment MESSAGE-1 (Microbial Experiments in the Space Station About Gene Expression) flew in October-November 2002 and was followed by MESSAGE-2 that flew in October 2003. The research program MESSAGE studied the basic effect of space conditions on micro-organisms in general using some well-known model bacteria.

In a third space flight experiment (MOBILISATSIA, April 2004) the gene transfer among bacteria under space flight conditions was characterised. This was done in collaboration with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP).

In 2006, the BASE project (Study of Bacterial Adaptation to Space flight Environments) including 4 new flight experiments in the following 4 years and 4 different bacteria was started. The BASE-A experiment flew successfully in September 2006.

The reaction of bacteria to simulated cosmic radiation and microgravity

In space, primary cosmic ionizing particles interact with the structure of a spaceship, This results in the production of a wide variety of secondary particles, (neutrons, protons, gamma rays …), creating an environment inside the spaceship where the ionizing radiation dose can reach up to 300-fold those related to the terrestrial environment. At SCK•CEN we try to study how bacteria react to such ionizing radiation in specific by simulating the cosmic radiation on earth using the radiation sources available at the SCK•CEN.

Several lab models have been developed to perform scientific experiments that can help to predict the behavior of biological cells in microgravity conditions. The systems that are currently used at SCK•CEN are known as the Rotating Wall Vessel technology (RWV) and the Random Positioning Machine (RPM).
The results show that some components of the bacterial behavior obtained with this RWV and RPM technologies shows similarities with space flight experiments. Thus the RWV and RPM lab experiments are complementary to space flight experiments and can help to elucidate the role of space flight conditions on bacterial activity and adaptation during space flight missions.

A multidisciplinary approach is used to investigate the effects of a space flight on the microorganisms, using full genome microarrays for transcriptome and HPLC-MS/MS analysis for proteome analysis.

The research will contribute to a better understanding of microbiological behavior in a space environment. The expertise will be valuable within applied research projects for the development of microbial waste recycling systems and air/water quality control systems.

Projects & Partners

SCK•CEN participates in several Space Research projects in co-operation with various Belgian and European universities and industrial partners which are financially supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) as well as by the Belgian Federal Science Policy (Belspo) through following projects: MESSAGE 1 & 2 - 'Microbial Experiments in the Space Station for the Analysis of Gene Expression 1 & 2' projects, MOBILISATION project , BASE – Bacterial Adaptation to Spaceflight EnvironmentFelice Mastroleo PreDoc project (SCK•CEN Fellowship, UMH, 2005-2008), Aurélie Crabbe PreDoc project (VUB grant & grant from Koning Bouwdewijn Stichting, 2006-2009).

In collaboration with : Dr. R. Wattiez from UMH in Belgium, Prof. J. Mahillon from UCL in Belgium, Prof. P. Cornelis from VUB in Belgium, Dr. V. Ilyin and Dr. N. Novikova from IBMP in Russia, Mhr. C. Lasseur from ESA-ESTEC.

Contact: Dr. Leys Natalie