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ISRO and IISC creates device to carry out microbial experiments in outer space

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A team of researchers from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISC) has developed a device to operate microbial experiments in outer space.

Highlights of the research

The main highlight of this modular, self-contained tool can be utilized to cultivate microorganisms which in turn, in outer space it will enable scientists to carry out biological experiments even there.

However, this study was published in the scientific journal, Acta Astronautica.

Researchers demonstrated how this device can be employed to activate and track the growth of Sporosarcina pasteurii, a bacterium, for many days with the least involvement of humans.

This insight into how these microbes behave in intense environments will provide valuable insights into missions like ‘Gaganyaan’, a human space mission that is set to be launched in 2022.

Background for the study

For the use of lab-on-chip platforms, the scientists have been examining, in recent years, which incorporates several inputs into a sole integrated chip to conduct experiments.

Though, there are additional challenges to designing such platforms for outer space as compared to the lab.

About the new device

To track the bacterial growth by measuring optical density or scattering of light, the following device uses a combination of a photodiode sensor and Light Emitting Diode (LED).

It is identical to spectrophotometers used in the lab. It also includes varied compartments for distinct experiments. Elaborately, each compartment or ‘cassette’ has a chamber where the nutrient medium can be mixed to kickstart growth with bacteria.

How data is collected?

Data from each cassette is stored and collected separately. However, 3 cassettes are clubbed into a single cartridge, which consumes less than 1 watt of power. According to researchers, a full payload that could go in a spacecraft will comprise 4 such cartridges which are capable of carrying 12 independent experiments.

Though, the team also had to confirm that the device was leak-proof and unaffected by any transition in orientation. 

Views for the research

“This is a non-traditional environment for the bacteria to grow. It is sealed and has a very small volume. We had to see whether we would get consistent (growth) results in this smaller volume,” said Aloke Kumar, Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and another senior author.

 “We also had to make sure that the LED going on and off doesn’t generate much heat, which can change the bacterial growth characteristics.” 

“Using an electron microscope, the researchers were able to confirm that the spores grew and multiplied into rod-shaped bacteria inside the device, as they would have under normal conditions in the lab”, according to the statement.

Device can also be modified for studying other organisms

“Now that we know this proof-of-concept works, we have already embarked on the next step? getting a flight model (of the device) ready,” Viswanathan said. 

However, this would encompass optimizing the physical space that the equipment can take up and its performance under stresses such as acceleration and vibration due to gravity.

Moreover, the device can also be modified for studying other organisms such as for non-biological experiments and also worms.

 “The whole idea was to develop a model platform for Indian researchers. Now that ISRO is embarking on an ambitious human space mission, it has to come up with its solutions, made at home,” Kumar said.

Also Read: The future is here: New electric air taxi is being tested by NASA


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