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Scientists from ISRO, IISc develop device to carry out biological experiments in space


BENGALURU: Researchers from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) have developed a modular, self-contained device to cultivate microorganisms, which can enable scientists to carry out biological experiments during manned space missions like India's 2022-scheduled first manned space mission Gaganyaan.  

Understanding how such microbes behave in extreme environments can provide valuable insights for human space missions. In recent years, scientists have been increasingly exploring the use of lab-on-chip platforms - which combine many analyses into a single integrated chip - for such experiments. But there are additional challenges to designing such platforms for outer space.  

In a study published in Acta Astronautica, the team showed how the device can be used to activate and track the growth of a bacterium, Sporosarcina pasteurii, with minimal human intervention. The device uses an light emitting diode and photodiode sensor combination to track bacterial growth by measuring optical density or scattering of light, similar to spectrophotometers used in the lab, an IISc release said. 

It also has separate compartments for different experiments. Each 'cassette' consists of a chamber where bacteria - suspended as spores in a sucrose solution - and a nutrient medium can be mixed to kickstart growth, by flicking on a switch remotely.

Using an electron microscope, the researchers confirmed that the spores multiplied into rod-shaped bacteria inside the device, as they would have under lab conditions.  

Data from each cassette is collected and stored independently. Three cassettes are clubbed into a single cartridge, which consumes just under 1W of power. The researchers envision that a full payload that could go in a spacecraft will contain four such cartridges capable of carrying out 12 independent experiments.  

Koushik Viswanathan, Assistant Prof in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and senior author of the study, says, "It has to be completely self-contained . Besides, you can't simply expect the same operating conditions as you would in a normal laboratory setting."