We often think of horseshoe crabs as belonging on the beach, but a key ingredient in their blood could someday help astronauts during space travel. A team of middle school students—coincidentally, from a school near the beaches of Cape Canaveral, Florida—will test horseshoe crab blood in space to see if that’s true. They’ll leverage the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory to test whether Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL), a component in horseshoe crab blood, can detect bacterial contamination in microgravity the same way it does on Earth.
The team of eighth graders at Pinecrest Academy Space Coast designed one of 39 investigations that will launch to the space station as part of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) Mission 17 on SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission. SSEP is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education, in partnership with the ISS National Lab.
Pinecrest Academy Space Coast team members Liam Hauser, Connor Santore, Eric Distasi, Evan Ireland, and Luke Costa—who nicknamed themselves the “Bacteria Boys”—are among 12,859 students whose teams proposed ISS experiments as part of the program. In all, SSEP judges received 2,261 proposals, which they narrowed to 112 finalists before choosing the 39 investigations that are part of Mission 17.
The team’s investigation will test the ability of LAL to detect bacteria in microgravity. LAL is already used to screen vaccines and any injectable or implantable medical treatments for bacterial contaminants on Earth. The students came up with the idea of an investigation using horseshoe crab blood after hearing a robotics teacher talk about its ability to detect bacteria.
“Our experiment is to test if horseshoe crab blood still has its reaction in microgravity—to see if something’s contaminated or not,” said Liam Hauser, the team’s principal investigator. “Astronauts could use it to see if a vaccine is contaminated in space, or if something in it is contaminated.”
The investigation uses a fluid mixing enclosure called a “Mixstix” from ISS National Lab Commercial Service Provider Nanoracks, a Voyager Space Company. The Mixstix is a tube with three compartments separated by clamps. The first section holds one gram of dried E. coli, the middle section holds one gram of dried LAL, and the last section contains a reagent—two milliliters of distilled water. Once in space, the distilled water will be combined with the LAL before mixing it with the E. coli. Astronauts will perform the experiment on the space station while the students perform an identical investigation on Earth; then the students will compare the results. They’ll know the investigation is a success if the fluid turns a greenish or yellowish color, indicating that the LAL detected the E. coli bacteria in microgravity.
“That means our experiment worked and it can be used in the future to find contamination onboard ships in space,” concluded teammate Eric Destasi. He believes the results could have a real impact on space travel, where storage is limited, because only a small amount of LAL is needed to detect bacterial contamination. “If everything works out the way we want it to, it could help space travel in the future.”
The team’s teacher, Consuelo Kirk, who is a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educator, said mentors from Charles River Laboratories guided the team’s efforts every step of the way. Kirk called the experience of working with professional scientists a “life- changing opportunity” for the students. The mentors not only guided the students’ inquiries, she said, but also met with them via video conferencing and often challenged them to research their questions themselves. Charles River Labs also supplied the materials for the experiment, such as the LAL.
“The students from Pinecrest were enthusiastic and had really creative ideas,” said Nora Blair, senior manager of formulations and quality operations at Charles River Labs. “Having their experiment chosen is a credit to their hard work and creative proposal. We provided support in logistic matters, where they provided the inspiration and enthusiasm.”
The Pinecrest Academy team learned of their selection a few weeks after they submitted their proposal. They will see their experiment head to the space station nearly a year later on SpaceX CRS-29 and are excited to watch the launch in person from Kennedy Space Center. According to SSEP, they are the first team of students ever selected from the Space Coast.
“I’m really very, very proud of them,” said Kirk. “They persevered through a long process, and every moment is a seized learning opportunity.”