At a Glance
- Gut bacteria play an essential role in human health and wellbeing.
- In space, gut bacteria may grow at altered rates and produce compounds that are not found in their Earthly counterparts. Alterations such as these can affect optimal human health.
- A team of researchers from Rhodium Scientific, LLC and Los Alamos National Laboratory is sending an investigation to the ISS on SpaceX’s 20th commercial resupply services (CRS) mission to study the gut microbiome in space.
- This study aims to characterize changes in composition and function of the gut microbiome in the spaceflight environment through advanced molecular techniques.
- The main goals of this study are to develop tools to diagnose gut microbiome-related ailments on Earth and to discover methods for protecting future space travelers.
As we travel into the extreme environment of space, our gut bacterial hitchhikers are along for the ride, whether we like it or not. Therefore, we must understand how our microscopic bacterial residents play a role in maintaining human health in space. Our bodies consist of far more bacterial cells than human cells, and a proper balance between them can either help us stay healthy or make us ill.
Exploring these balance points and molecular changes in gut bacterial cells in stressful environments like space can help us understand how to maintain gut bacterial health in extreme environments on Earth. This work helps establish methods for therapeutics that will help maintain optimal bacterial balance and human health for those that serve our country in extreme environments, including astronauts in space as well as military service members on Earth.
In recent years, more attention has been placed upon the human gut microbiome as a convergence point for molecular cross talk between human and bacterial cells. However, there is much to be learned in terms of how gut microbiome composition and structure contributes to potential human ailments when our bodies are stressed. Our project “Rhodium Space Microbiome,” which is launching to the International Space Station (ISS) on SpaceX CRS-20, will combine our understanding of the gut microbiome with documented shifts in bacterial growth and metabolic rates observed in space.
Using advanced molecular tools, we will look at the beneficial and potentially deleterious effects of a changing microbiome in the spaceflight environment. It is expected that advancements in cultivation strategies and techniques adapted for this project can be used to develop future gut microbial therapeutics that maintain optimal human health in space and on Earth.
Developing a Rapid Research Prototype
Our mission represents a collaboration between scientists at Rhodium Scientific, LLC and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). This project is funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and sponsored for flight by the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. This project aims to advance human gut microbiome research and will serve as a military prototype to demonstrate rapid response capabilities for space-based biotechnology experiments of defense interest.
The project duration—from initiation through flight experiment execution and completion of postflight analyses—will be one year. To meet this accelerated goal, all parties involved are working together to demonstrate the prototype’s feasibility, rapid time-to-flight requirement, and the speed at which public-private partnerships between commercial space and defense-based research enterprises can operate.
Critical to this project’s success is Rhodium’s requirement for standardization and quality assurance that must be maintained throughout the preflight and postflight phases of the project. Rhodium’s implementation of quality assurance serves to increase the reliability of gut microbial data collected in space and its translation to product development for both military and civilian purposes.
Designing an Elegant Scientific Plan
The experiment’s design is elegant in its simplicity, adding to the flight feasibility and scientific success potential. The experiment will include a set of incubations conducted over different time points and then frozen within Rhodium’s spaceflight hardware, the “Rhodium Science Chambers.” These chambers will contain both gut bacteria and encapsulated gel microdroplets (GMDs). GMDs add a unique advance to standard cultivation as they allow both interaction between bacteria as they grow and the capacity to isolate specific bacteria once growth is complete. Postflight analytics will occur at Los Alamos National Laboratory, with results projected to be presented by the end of summer 2020 to complete the project’s one-year goal.