OCEAN CITY — Minutes after his classmates wanted to turn his lunch into a photo prop, Dan Loggi sat down and ate his salad in science class.
It didn’t seem to bother him that his bowl of leafy greens represented a key part of an experiment involving E. coli bacteria designed by a group of six Ocean City High School juniors that will be aboard the International Space Station this fall. Their experiment, to analyze the effect of microgravity on the attachment rate of E. coli to romaine lettuce cells, was one of 19 chosen nationwide by the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program to take the trip into outer space.
Within 36 hours of re-entry to Earth, the 7-inch-long test tube containing their experiment will be returned to the students so that they can do the analysis themselves. By replicating the experiment on Earth during the same time frame their test tube is in space, the students will be able to compare the effects of the two different gravitational pulls on the bacteria’s growth.
“The kids wanted to do something ground-breaking,” science teacher Catherine Georges said Friday. She described her role in the project as a sounding board and a reference for sources and resources. “But you can’t always do something ground-breaking. Sometimes, what you do can be very important for the next step.”
Originally, the students -- Loggi, 17, of the Palermo section of Upper Township; Alison Miles, 17, and Lauren Bowersock, 17, both of the Seaville section of Upper Township; and Kristina Redmond, 17, of Ocean City, along with classmates Mercy Griffith and Kaitland Wriggins -- wanted to test the effect of pathogenic E. coli on human cells. But the unavailability of such organisms, especially bacteria so dangerous it is only supplied to major universities and medical labs, forced them to substitute lettuce for human cells and E. coli K12 for the pathogenic strain. Loggi and Bowersock said E. coli attaches to lettuce and carrots in much the same manner as it attaches to human cells.
Modeling their experiment on previous work done at the University of North Carolina, the OCHS students designed a test that would allow them to measure the growth of E. coli , one of the most common causes of food-borne illnesses, in space. Learning the rate of bacterial growth in space could be instructional for future explorations to distant planets, Bowersock said.
“Science is trying to figure out how to grow plants in space,” Bowersock said. “If you’re going to Mars, you can’t take a million freeze-dried packs of food with you.”
That premise was the basis of a different experiment proposed by junior Hannah Lucey, 16, of Ocean City, and sophomore Greg Fischer, 15, of the Marmora section of Upper Township. Their experiment focused on growing food for long-distance flights, using fish as the food source and snails as the housekeeping agents that would clean the fish tanks of oxygen-robbing algae. The third experiment OCHS submitted to the SSEP was one that examined blood coagulation in space.
The SSEP did not give a reason why the E. coli experiment was chosen, said science teacher Dan Weaver, who acted as director of the program for the 75 high school students who originally signed up to participate.
The students overcame many obstacles in designing their experiments, said science teacher Dave Uhrich, who acted as assistant director to the program. To illustrate the concept of zero gravity, he said he told the students to imagine being in a free fall.
One of the biggest challenges in designing the experiment was containing it to a plastic vial about the size of a travel toothbrush holder. Bowersock said the cost of sending material into space is about $10,000 per pound, so keeping the experiment lightweight was essential.
The students compartmentalized their test tube into three sections: One for the bacteria, the center for triangular-folded leaves of lettuce, and the last for a poison. NASA will permit the test tube to be refrigerated for the first four weeks of the flight, Bowersock said, which will keep the experiment dormant during that time. For the next two weeks, the experiment will be unrefrigerated at zero gravity, allowing bacteria to grow. At the end of those two weeks, the poison – acting as a growth inhibitor on the bacteria -- will be released.
Once the test tube is returned to OCHS, the students will remove and rinse the lettuce leaves, washing away any bacteria that did not attach to the vegetation. They will then grind the lettuce leaves with a mortar and pestle, and put the ground-up matter in a petri dish. They will do the same for the experiment they conducted on Earth. The students will then be able to compare the growth of bacteria in each experiment.
Dr. Kathleen Taylor, superintendent of the Ocean City School District, said the work the students did was remarkable considering it was done once a week after school and mostly on their own time at home. Unlike Ocean City, other school districts offer the program as part of its curriculum.
In addition to five teams participating in the program at the high school, five participated at Upper Township Middle School and one at Ocean City Intermediate School.
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