• The Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) will be on board the International Space Station. Image courtesy of NASA.
     The Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) will be on board the International Space Station. Image courtesy of NASA.

Biodetection System Bound for Space

April 28, 2016


National lab-developed technology finds a new purpose.


A biological detection system developed by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists will soon take a giant leap into outer space, lab officials announced.

The Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA) already has been employed for all kinds of studies, from analyzing the purity of infant vaccines to detecting plague in a 14th century tooth to learning more about combat wounds from soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now a team of scientists from the LLNL and three NASA research centers will use the LLMDA to study microbes associated with astronauts and found inside the closed environment aboard the International Space Station.

Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California; NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; and the LLNL have received a three-year, $1.5 million NASA grant for characterizing microbes using state-of-the-art molecular techniques.

“The aim of the project is to provide a survey of the microbial profiles inside the International Space Station and to evaluate the possibility of the presence of pathogens that could be harmful to the astronauts’ health,” LLNL biologist Crystal Jaing, the project’s principal investigator, said in the written announcement.

The project, called Microbial Tracking-2, is a follow-on to NASA’s Microbial Tracking-1 (MT-1) that is currently sampling and studying airborne and surface-associated populations of microorganisms aboard the International Space Station. The third and final experiment in the MT-1 series was launched to the space station on April 8 on a SpaceX cargo resupply mission.

The LLMDA technology is a DNA-based detection system that does not require the culturing of samples, compared to traditional techniques that may require days. Additionally, many bacteria have trouble growing in culture at all or require unique culture media.

“The LLMDA can process samples in about a day. And while traditional culturing often only covers 1 to 10 percent of the microorganisms present, the LLNL array provides about 50-to-100-fold greater coverage of microbes,” Jaing said.

Once microbes in the space station are identified, researchers can develop and employ countermeasures. The vast majority of microbes, about 80 percent, are innocuous to people, while only somewhere around 10 to 20 percent are harmful. On the other hand, bacteria that are harmless on Earth may behave differently under the extreme environment of space, the researchers say.

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