May 20, 2011

When the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off this week, it was carrying an unusual cargo: baby Bobtail Squid (Euprymna scolopes). Squid are cephalopods, a group of relatively intelligent animals that also includes octopuses. These baby squid are the first celaphods to travel into space. 

NASA hopes the squid will help us understand how "good" bacteria behave in the microgravity of space. As Jamie Foster of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who is running the experiment, puts it: "Do good bacteria go bad?"

We already know that disease microbes ("bad" bacteria) grow faster and become more dangerous if they are sent into space. Salmonella bacteria were sent up on a space shuttle in 2006, and when they returned to Earth they were almost three times as likely to kill mice as normal.

So far, we have only studied harmful bacteria in space. This time, the astronauts are going to run experiments that will enable us to look at good bacteria.

The reason Foster chose these animals for his experiment is pretty interesting. Bobtail shrimp carry a whole colony of bacteria, called Vibrio fischeri in their bodies, stored in their "light organs." The squid use the bacteria to create light, which they shine out of their bodies and onto the ocean floor below. That way, they don’t have a shadow, which makes it harder for predators to see them. Isn’t that an interesting camouflage tactic?

The experiment is simple. Newly hatched squid that don’t yet have the bacteria in their light organs were placed in test tubes filled with seawater and sent up on the shuttle. Yesterday, an astronaut added the bacteria to their seawater. When they come back to earth, Dr. Foster and his research partners will study the squid and see if the bacteria grew normally, if they grew faster in a good way, or if there were problems.

People often think that the space program is only about exploration. Of course, that is an important part of why we travel to space. But an equally important aspect of space travel is the opportunity to do experiments that we cannot do here on Earth. Science that we learn in space has many spin-offs back on our home planet. We have learned all kinds of new technologies. We have learned things that have helped us to learn about diseases, to better understand the functioning of the human body (including what causes "malfunctions"), and to develop new vaccines. These little squid will take us one step further in our understanding of the nature of life, and the interaction between different species. 

Photo: GenomeNewsNetwork.org

Posted by: Seymour Simon

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