To celebrate 20 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station (ISS), NASA is sending five student projects to the ISS as part of its Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOCS) program. One of the five experiments selected is NoMADS, research on the mutation of soil bacteria conducted by a team of UNH Manchester students and their faculty advisor, Lecturer of Biology Suzanne Cooke ’94, ’04G.
Led by Team Cooke, the Novel Methods of Antibiotic Discovery in Space (NoMADS) project examines how soil bacteria evolve or mutate in space at a faster rate than what is observed on Earth and how this affects the production of antibiotic compounds. Cooke says the results of this experiment have potential for lasting contributions to both space exploration and humankind.
“This research could lead to the development of novel antibiotic compounds,” Cooke says. “It could lead to changes in space travel, affect how people live in space for extended periods of time and interact with their environments and help deal with the issue of antibiotic resistance in space.”
Sydney Rollins ’20, ’22G, Raymond Miller ’21, Irma Vrevic ’23 and Thomas Gerton ’23 make up the original Team Cooke, which has since expanded. The team’s NoMADS experiment was selected for space travel after the group submitted a proposal and presented to NASA, Nanoracks and DreamUp. The team will send unknown soil bacteria to the ISS for approximately 30 to 45 days without any interaction or observation from the station crew and, upon return, will assess them for antibiotic production in comparison with control samples incubated on Earth. Miller, a pre-M.D./Ph.D. student in the biological sciences program, says this will provide meaningful data to the limited body of knowledge surrounding bacterial resistance in space.
“Antibiotic resistance is one of the top health crises the world will face in the coming decades,” Miller says. “Learning how Earth bacteria change in space not only helps prepare for long-term space exploration, but it could also lead to the discovery of novel chemicals that could be used as new antibiotics.”
Miller and Rollins co-lead the NoMADS project, which stemmed from research they conducted in Cooke’s Small Microbial World course. Designed to crowd-source antibiotic discovery from soil, the course was built upon protocols created by Jo Handelsman as part of her Microbes to Molecules course at Yale University. These same protocols are now used by students at institutions in over 45 U.S. states and 15 countries, aiming to inspire students to pursue careers in STEM fields and address the global rise in antibiotic resistance.
“I fell in love with the research,” says Rollins, a biological sciences alumna who is now pursuing her master’s degree in biotechnology. “We’re applying the skills we’ve learned in our coursework and research projects to our NoMADS experiment, which we hope will contribute to the medical treatment of astronauts as space travel grows.”
The experiment will use cutting-edge technology called the ichip, a small device developed by Northeastern University’s Slava Epstein, Ph.D., that cultures countless more soil bacteria than is possible in the traditional lab setting. One of the most abundant sources of bacteria on Earth, soil could be key in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
“Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem our generation is facing,” says Gerton, a biotechnology major and Millyard Scholar. “This project has the potential to help source novel antibiotics to mitigate the crisis, which will only get more severe without new discoveries.”
In addition to research, outreach is a key component of NASA’s SPOCS program. Team Cooke will involve New Hampshire middle schoolers as citizen scientists on the NoMADS experiment, allowing kids to contribute to real-world research through hands-on STEM activities.
“We are excited to share our passion and inspire youth to pursue STEM fields, as well as give them hands-on experiences in a college lab that they wouldn’t get otherwise,” Rollins says.
Dedicating countless hours to research and outreach, Team Cooke continues to prepare the NoMADS experiment for its expected launch to the space station in 2022. Vrevic, a biological sciences major, says she is proud of what the team has accomplished.
“I never imagined having an opportunity to work on something like this,” Vrevic says. “The most rewarding part of the experiment so far has been having the experience to work with others and see it grow into something that will contribute to science and humanity.”
Keep up with the latest news and NoMADS research from Team Cooke by following @unhm.spocs on social media. For questions and press inquiries, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Team Cooke, from left to right: Irma Vrevic, Thomas Gerton, Lecturer of Biology Suzanne Cooke, Sydney Rollins and Raymond Miller.