MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – 02 JAN 13
NASA Intern Muses on Microorganism Preservation
While driving down to Mexico during his fall internship working with the Exobiology Branch at NASA Ames Research Center, intern Mike Lee was struck with the news about the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. The New Jersey native who lives on one of the barrier islands and attends Kean University had little communication with anyone in the affected area for a week after the storm hit.
“All communication with those at home was through email periodically, and no one was allowed onto the island to assess the damage for that whole first week so every day I was waiting to hear what had actually happened — as everyone back home was waiting for a chance to go see,” commented Lee. “Fortunately the people I am working with…are absolutely fantastic and incredibly kind. They were all considerate and supportive and we were busy doing some amazing work, which helped keep my mind occupied.”
The work he speaks of involved investigating how to preserve microorganisms in an easily maintained status, exploring lyophilization, or freeze-drying, as opposed to keeping the organisms in extremely cold temperatures. The work was aimed at finding preservation protocols that could be deployed on small satellite missions to study algae in the space environment.
He said, “I spent time attempting various pre- and post-lyophilization protocols while monitoring cellular viability after the procedure in hopes of identifying a reliable combination of treatments.” This also involved researching the relatively new field of lycoprotectants, some of which would be better than others for space missions.
While in Guerrero Negro, Baja Sur Mexico, Lee was able to take his research to the next level. Here, he learned the importance of studying organism byproducts in different environments. According to Lee’s NASA mentor, Brad Bebout, “The research in Baja California was aimed at determining the isotopic signature of methane produced by organisms living in extremely salty water.” Microorganisms in hypersaline environments, like the site in Mexico, were not as selective as fresh water or marine based microorganisms, which tend to select for Carbon-12. The methane they produce is therefore relatively high in Carbon-13, and thus more easily confused with geologically produced gas rather than biologically produced gas.
“Being down there in a Mars analogue environment…was an experience I will never forget — especially with its potential applications to data being collected by the Curiosity rover,” noted Lee. “As we plan to venture beyond low-Earth orbit, cosmic and solar radiation in space has been cited as likely the greatest obstacle that needs to be overcome. Microorganisms provide a great test subject for studying the effects of radiation at a relatively cheap cost. If lyophilization can provide a reliable way to maintain these organisms in stasis…[for long duration satellite missions], it will help increase their applicability for carrying out radiobiological studies…. These types of studies could be done not only on orbiting spacecraft, but also on landers, thereby providing a way to study the radiation exposure on another plant or moon’s surface.”
After completing his degree in biology, Lee plans to attend graduate school to further his knowledge of astrobiology and hopes to one day end up back at Ames.
His advice for future interns: “Work hard, be grateful, and don’t lose sight of how amazing it is to be exactly where you are right now.” And with a positive attitude like this, even in the face of misfortune, Lee will go far.
Bebout was impressed with Lee’s work ethic and attitude as well: “Our experience with Mike reminded our entire lab group how important these internships are to the students we attract here, and how dedicated they are to their work in our labs and offices and to NASA’s mission”.