Liberty and Science for All: Project MERCCURI [UPDATE]

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by Darlene Cavalier

Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, swabs the Liberty Bell for microbes in Philadelphia.

Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter, swabs the Liberty Bell for microbes in Philadelphia.

Thanks to the Independence National Historical Park for giving me access to the Liberty Bell. I had a lot of fun collecting microbes from this national treasure in my hometown!

Happy to announce that the microbes from the Liberty Bell have been selected to fly on the International Space Station where their growth rates will be analyzed and compared to their counterparts back at the UC Davis lab! We will be announcing each selected microbe over the course of the next two weeks, with Philly first. This research is part of Project MERCCURI, a citizen science project from UC Davis, Science Cheerleader and SciStarter, to examine the diversity of microbes on Earth and on the International Space Station.

Check out this particular microbe’s very own trading card! Here’s an excerpt:

Where we found it: On the Liberty Bell (Philadelphia, PA)

Why it’s awesome: This is an important industrial organism, used for the production of penicillin, vitamins, various drugs, and numerous enzymes

Fun fact: The species name of this microbe means “big beast” and it is among the largest bacteria ever discovered

In addition to the microbes from the Liberty Bell, six other microbes from Philadelphia were selected by UC Davis researchers to blast into space for research at the International Space Station. Here are links to images and more information about the microbes collected from the following sites in Philadelphia and selected to fly on the International Space Station:

Chemical Heritage Foundation
Philadelphia Phillies
Philadelphia 76ers
The Franklin Institute
The Academy of Natural Sciences (microbes collected by St. Peter’s School students)
St. Joseph’s Preparatory School
WHYY studio

A total of 48 samples were selected from across the country.

Here’s more information about this project:

Davis, CA. (Jan. 30, 2014) — Microbes collected from Philadelphia landmarks will soon blast into orbit for research and a microgravity growth competition on the International Space Station (ISS). This citizen science project, known as Project MERCCURI, investigates how microbes from different places on Earth compare to each other and to those found on the International Space Station.

Led by the Science Cheerleaders (current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing science and technology careers), thousands of people across the United States participated in the project. Several Pop Warner cheer teams swabbed practice fields, shoes, and cell phones for microbes. Other people collected microbial samples at NFL, NBA, and MLB stadiums; from schools; from landmarks like the Liberty Bell, Sue the T-Rex, the statue of Ben Franklin in Philadelphia, and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum; and during events including Yuri’s Nights, a series of gatherings across the country to commemorate the first human in space.

The microbes they gathered were examined by the “microbiology team” in the laboratory of Dr. Jonathan Eisen at the University of California at Davis. The team selected 48 microbes (SEVEN of which are from Philadelphia!), which, with approval from NASA, are to ride the SpaceX Falcon 9 to the Space Station for further research. The rocket is scheduled to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in early March.

The public will be able to follow Project MERCCURI as it continues over the next several months via the web site SpaceMicrobes.org. The site will include updates from the research on the Space Station including results of the “microbial playoffs” growth competition. The site also features free interactive visualization tools, lesson plans for teachers, and even trading cards that include photos and the details of each microbe selected for the project, as well as their importance.

In addition to the research in space, thousands of additional samples collected by the public are being analyzed further at UC Davis and by the lab of Dr. Jack Gilbert at Argonne National Laboratory. The microbes found in these samples are being assayed using DNA sequencing technology, and the resulting data will be made available to the public and also integrated with results of the Earth Microbiome Project. Scientists hope to gain insights into what is living at the ISS, how microbes vary between different places on Earth and in space, and to compare growth of microbes on Earth and in microgravity. Philadelphia 76ers fans will have the opportunity to participate in this part of the research during Science at the Sixers night on 2/18 when the 76ers host the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“We are in the midst of a revolution in our ability to study the hidden world of microbes found throughout the planet,” said Jonathan Eisen, Professor at UC Davis and leader of the microBEnet (microbiology of the built environment network) team doing the microbiology side of Project MERCCURI. “One area of growing interest is in studying the microbes living right around us – in our buildings – on our phones – and elsewhere. The Science Cheerleader group has allowed us to get thousands of people to not only think more about the microbes among us, but to also participate in a microbial diversity research project. And those people have helped us get more samples than we have been able to obtain previously.”

“A lot of people ask us *why* we’re sending microbes into space,” said Dr. David Coil, a microbiologist at UC Davis. “Understanding how microbes behave in microgravity is critically important for planning long-term manned spaceflight but also has the possibility of giving us new insight into how these microbes behave in built environments on Earth.”

“This initiative is not just about significant research,” said Darlene Cavalier, a former 76ers cheerleader and Founder of Science Cheerleader and SciStarter, both based in Philadelphia. “It’s about engaging the public in that research. Microbes that were collected at Georgia Tech are taking a ride on the International Space Station. They’re the subject of research by microbiologists and astronauts. We hope that inspires youngsters as well as adults to become more aware of and involved in science.”

Project MERCCURI is coordinated by Science Cheerleader, SciStarter.com, and UC Davis, in conjunction with the Argonne National Laboratory. The Project is made possible by Space Florida, NanoRacks, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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Note to editors: To arrange interviews with the research team at UC Davis, members of the Science Cheerleader or SciStarter teams, or with local groups that participated in collecting the microbes, please email Claire LaBeaux, claire@prclaire.com.

Image: Courtey of Darlene Cavalier

This post originally appeared on the Science Cheerleader blog.

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The Liberty and Science for All: Project MERCCURI [UPDATE] by CitizenSci, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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