Studying microbiological life in the stratosphere

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About

STARDUST Microbiology Project is a joint venture of two Gdańsk University of Technology science clubs: SimLE and KSB (Student Club of Biotechnology). We are group of 10 students from Gdańsk University of Technology in Poland participating in the REXUS/BEXUS programme. Our project aims to conduct qualitative and quantitative research of microbial life in the stratosphere.

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What is REXUS/BEXUS programme?

The REXUS/BEXUS programme allows students from universities and higher education colleges across Europe to carry out scientific and technological experiments on research rockets and balloons. Each year, two rockets and two balloons are launched, carrying up to 20 experiments designed and built by student teams. The REXUS/BEXUS programme is realised organized by a bilateral Agency Agreement between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Swedish National Space Agency (SNSA) in cooperation with European Space Agency (ESA). Find more at rexus-bexus.

Stardust in Kiruna Stardust in Esrange Space Center

Our abstract

The stratospheric microbiome has been investigated several times using the methods of classical microbiology. In this experiment, we are going to combine them with some novel approaches including whole-metagenome amplification and NGS sequencing. The analysis of metagenome will help to determine the content of various species of bacteria in the sample collected in the stratosphere. Diversification of methods will help to distinguish culturable microorganisms from non-culturable ones. The experiment supplies the information about the possibilities of spreading of bacteria around the world which is important from the point of view of epidemiological threats and environmental biodiversity. It also may provide the scientists with knowledge about the mechanisms of survivability of microorganisms in stratospheric conditions. In the stratosphere, we expect to find gram-positive bacteria with the ability to survive high doses of UV and cosmic radiation as well as cold, drought or low pressure (incl. low partial pressure of oxygen). After setting up the pure cultures of stratospheric microorganisms, they shall be exposed to different but controlled values of these parameters. The microorganisms shall be collected in the stratosphere by a sampling system equipped with six filters divided into two subsystems. Two filters shall be placed between ever-closed valves as the control filters. Biological material shall be collected in the remaining four filters of which one shall be used for metagenome isolation. Three of them shall provide the microorganisms for setting up cultures on agar media. One of the control filters shall be treated like the one for metagenome isolation and the second one shall be treated similar to the ones used for setting up the cultures. The stratospheric microbiome shall be compared to the microbiome of the air collected from the place of the balloon’s start.

Stardust in tv Stardust team

Team

Agnieszka Kurdyn Agnieszka Kurdyn

Agnieszka is our next microbiologist, a future Biotechnology engineer. She makes herself known as an owner of long curly hair, playing ukulele, reading books or walking in the mountains in her spare time. Her favourite food is pierogi ruskie.

Dawid Rekowski Dawid Rekowski

Dawid is a member of the microbiology team and a student of Biotechnology. Together with the other three students of the Faculty of Chemistry, he will be responsible for the experimental part of the Stardust project. Dawid is interested in football, and during his spare time he likes to play Ludo on a messenger or translates posts into English. Favorite food: toast sandwiches with salami.

Dominika Tomaszewska Dominika Tomaszewska

Dominika is in charge of social media, promotion, finance and all sorts of paperwork in Stardust project. She has been working at SimLE since 2015, currently as a Chairman. She is a student of Mechanics and Machine Design, and volleyball player, also a fan of ski jumping, ABBA and the Friends series. One day she will scratch off all countries on her scratch map. Favorite food: Silesian dumplings.

Kacper Loret Kacper Loret

Kacper is our mechanical specialist, an expert in fluid mechanics. He designed our bacterial collection system! Fan of tourism, secrets of photography and car mechanics. In his spare time he eats spaghetti carbonara.

Karol Pelzner Karol Pelzner

This mister probably doesn't need to be introduced to anyone! The real Team Leader! In our squad, he performs the function of a Hardware Design Engineer. Karol joined SimLE while being in high school and he has been leading the section of stratospheric balloons since 2015. Now he's bound to the Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunication and Informatics. Always fascinated by new technologies and exploring the most remote parts of the world. Favourite food: Chineese style meat.

Marcin Jasiukowicz Marcin Jasiukowicz

Calls himeself a "tinkerer obsessed with space", big fan of SpaceX and space technologies. Will spot a Tesla car from a mile away. Marcin is our Firmware Enginieer working on the technical side of the Stardust mission. He loves pizza and 0.99€ chicken nuggets from Burger King. Catch him in the interwebz over at yasiu.pl

Mateusz Grzybowski Mateusz Grzybowski

Mateusz is a leader of the Microbiology Team. He studies Biotechnology at Faculty of Chemistry. Together with Karol, he created the perspective of microbiological balloon missions. Privately a fan of cooking and enology (you need to google that - life's hard!). He loves to eat sushi and to make sushi because his favourite dish is... Guess what!

Oktawia Płużnow Oktawia Płużnow

Oktawia is another representative of the '99 generation in Stardust. She is connected with the project from the beginning of her student adventure. A future mechatronics engineer with a penchant for programming. A fan of space, climbing. In the future she is going to learn how to fly gliders. Enthusiast of red borscht with dumplings.

Paulina Podpirko Paulina Podpirko

Paulina is a member of the microbiology team and like the other members of this group, a student of Biotechnology. She is interested in cosmetics chemistry and production of home-made wine (we are waiting for invitation to test it). Favorite food: French fries

Szymon Magrian Szymon Magrian

Szymon is our leading Embedded Firmware Engineer. Associated with Stardust for years, student at the Faculty of Electronics, Telecommunication and Informatics Department, one of the most experienced project members. Fascinated by the musical creativity of Mr. Jacek Stachursky. A fan of good memes and a great gourmet. His favorite dishes are donatello pizza from Biedronka and lumberjack sandwich from McDonald.

Inside

The objective of the experiment is to investigate the microbiome of the stratosphere qualitatively and quantitatively. The experiment consists of four parts: a filtering system, an electromechanical part operating the filtering system, an electronic system receiving and processing information from the sensors and controlling the electromechanical part and the external isolation made of extruded polystyrene.

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In this experiment, microorganisms shall be caught in four of six syringe filters put between pressure-tight valves connected by flexible pipes into a filtering system divided into two subsystems. The two remaining filters of the system shall stay between ever-closed valves as the control filters. Two inlets and two outlets of the subsystems (one inlet and one outlet per each subsystem) shall also be controlled by valves. The four valves at the two endings of the system and the eight valves securing the sampling filters shall be operated by servos. Each outlet of the system shall be connected with a diaphragm vacuum pump which shall generate airflow through the filtering system. The valves at the outlet of the system shall be three-way valves, thanks to which the pumps shall suck the air either from the system or directly from the environment depending on the altitude of the balloon holding the experiment. The hoses of the system shall be ramified with inflexible joints. Every component of the filtering system except the syringe filters shall be autoclavable and shall be sterilized directly before the integration of the system. The filters shall be bought sterile. The system shall be integrated in a laminar flow cabinet and shall stay pressure-tight after the integration process. After the integration of the sterile filtering system, before the balloon launch, the inlets of the system shall be covered by the safety caps which shall protect the sections of the inlet pipes between the inlet holes and the first valves from contamination during the process of accommodation of the experiment in the BEXUS gondola.

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The pump shall be working during the whole flight, however, the valves of the system shall open after reaching an altitude of 15 km during ascent and close after crossing 18 km of altitude during descent. After the landing of the balloon’s gondola, the filtering system shall be dismounted from the experiment, packed into a safe and clean container and transported immediately to a laminar flow cabinet, where its outer surface shall be decontaminated. Then, still in the laminar flow cabinet, the system shall be packed and sealed in a clean vacuum sack. The temperature of the system during these operations should not exceed the value of 10 ºC. The package with the system shall be transported to the laboratory in Gdańsk in as low temperature as possible. During the flight of the balloon with the experiment, the second filtering system similar to that of the main experiment will be running, performing in the same manner, in regular atmospheric air close to Earth’s surface, as a secondary control to compare the results from the stratosphere and the troposphere. All the procedures shall be kept respectively.

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After bringing the systems with collected samples to the laboratory, the filters shall be rinsed with proper solutions to wash out the microorganisms from the filters’ membranes. One of the sampling filters and one of the control filters shall be rinsed with a cell lysis buffer after a short incubation with lysozyme and ribonuclease A and then with proteinase K in order to extract total DNA from the collected bacterial cells. Then the DNA shall be purified using a DNA purification kit. The purified DNA shall undergo a multiple-displacement amplification with a Phi29 polymerase which is an isothermal process in which the whole genetic material is multiplied with high fidelity of sequences. The population of the 16S rRNA-coding gene from the amplified metagenome shall be re-amplified in polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and then sequenced in an NGS process on MiSeq apparatus (Illumina) which can output up to 25 millions of gene reads, giving information about the percentage of a given sequence in the population.

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Three of the remaining sampling filters and the second of the control filters shall be rinsed with a diluted, isotonic solution of Triton X-100 and sodium chloride in order to rinse out living microorganisms from the filters’ membranes. The suspension of microbial cells shall be centrifuged and the pellet of cells shall be resuspended in a smaller volume of isotonic NaCl solution. After that, the suspensions shall be incorporated onto rich, universal agar media (for example: chocolate agar enriched with vitamins) to set up the microbial cultures. Microorganisms from the three sampling filters shall be cultured in three different aerobic conditions: aerobic, anaerobic and microaerobic. From each primary culture, the pure strains of bacteria, yeast and molds shall be isolated and re-cultured on a proper medium in proper conditions. The cultures of pure strains shall be passaged and then they shall undergo tests. The tests include culturing the microorganisms in different values of temperature, pressure, humidity and concentration of additives to microbiological media as well as treating them with different doses of UV radiation, ionising radiation and oxygen in order to determine their survivability in harsh conditions.

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Blog

Next step - another visit by an SSC expert.

September 2020

On September 8th, we hosted Armelle Frenea-Schmidt, REXUS/BEXUS program manager from SSC - Swedish Space Corporation, in Gdańsk again. Our experiment has been carefully examined from all angles, we have heard some priceless comments that we are going to to implement! 🧐 As a thank you, we presented to our guest the charms of Gdańsk's old town. 😃 We also presented our progress to ESA representatives in the form of an online conference, during which our mentor, astrobiologist - Nicol Caplin shared her advice with us. 👩‍🔬 Meanwhile, the Stardust project continues! We have to work more on the integration of the system, final tests and prepare of a solid plan for the coming months! 💪

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REXUS/BEXUS campaign postponded to 2021!

August 2020

In the end of August, a very sad news came to us. 😭 Due to the epidemiological situation, the REXUS/BEXUS launch campaign, which was supposed to take place in Kiruna in October, is postponed to 2021. The organizers made this decision taking into account the health and safety of all participants. That doesn't mean we're going to laze, no, no no! 😎 We've been working very hard on our experiment throughout the summer, and we will continue to improve it to make sure everything works out perfectly during the mission!

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Test mission!

July 2020

Phew! It was a very long Monday. :D On July 20th, we did our test mission! The gondola containing half of the research system rose to a height of 33 km and after a few hours of flight landed on a charming field in a village named Kawle. 😎 It was an important test for us before building the final gondola, that will be flown in the October mission under REXUS/BEXUS (Rocket/Balloon Experiments for University Students). Now it's time to go to the laboratory! 👩‍🔬👨‍🔬 We will share the results of our mission with you soon! 💪💪

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We are after IPR!

July 2020

We are already after IPR. It was a really valuable experience! Over the past two days, we have presented our progress, planned further activities, and discussed procedures related to the October launch campaign. Armelle Frenea-Schmidt's comments from SSC - Swedish Space Corporation were priceless to us, thank you! As a gratitude, of course, we took our guest on a little trip around Gdańsk Old Town. Our mentor Nicol Caplin from ESA - European Space Agency, was also with us but spiritually and via Skype! Now the most intense month ahead of us! We will test our systems and finish the construction of the gondola. Keep your fingers crossed!

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Separately, but together

May 2020

Separately, but together, we presented our project at the the CDR (Critical Design Review)! During the 20-minute speech, we presented our solutions, created models, analyzes and plans for the near future. However, the most important part was an over-one-hour discussion with the experts of the REXUS/BEXUS (Rocket/Balloon Experiments for University Students), thanks to which we know what to rethink or improve. It was definitely an intensive and well spent time!

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Working during quarantine

Spring 2020

Spring 2020 wasn’t easy time for any REXUS/BEXUS team… Despite this, we tried to work remotely, designing electronics, printing components at home or creating this website :) In April there was also a very important moment for us - we had the opportunity to meet and for the first time hold a video conference with our BEXUS mentor - Nicol Caplin, astrobiologist from ESA.

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We are going to Kiruna

February 2020

During the Student Training Week we had an occasion to get to know the cosmodrome, from which we’ll be launching the balloon with our experiment aboard in October. We’ve learned about its buildings, equipment and personnel. We’ve listened to many hours of useful lectures concerning the technical aspects of the balloon mission. We’ve stated the accommodation of our experiment in the balloon’s gondola. We also got to meet the members of other teams, with whom we will cooperate. The most important thing during these days was although the feedback given to us by the experts during our Preliminary Design Review, which let us see our drawbacks in our project documentation. Aside these scientific, technical and other important things, we’ve met some reindeers, visited Kiruna and the Ice Hotel and admired the beautiful northern lights!

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Making our first SED

January 2020

Student Design Review was the biggest documentation, that we have ever made. Our team met several times during winter period to make sure, we’ve included everything necessary in the documentation; our electronic and mechanical solutions as well as an outline of a microbiological experiment and an idea for outreach.

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We passed!

December 2019

After Selection Workshop we were patiently waiting for results and then, at 9th December we got an email! We have become part of REXUS/BEXUS family.

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Stardust at Selection Workshop in ESTEC, Noordwijk

November 2019

In the last week of November we came to Noorwdijk to finally had pleasure to meet ESA members and other REXUS and BEXUS teams. During the selection workshop a total of 13 teams from all over Europe presented their projects as part of the 2nd stage of qualification for the REXUS / BEXUS program. Our Stardust team was the only representative of Poland. Undoubtedly, the most important moment for everyone was the speeches before the panel of experts - our representatives Agnieszka, Dominika, Marcin and Mateusz had 20 minutes of presentation, 20 minutes to answer the questions. It was also great opportunity to get to know ESA history and experience space technologies from the inside.

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We are in REXUS/BEXUS Program!

Autumn 2019

In the beginning of university semester we prepare application for REXUS/BEXUS Program. Our team of 10 student specialists work hard to put all our thoughts on paper. It was worth it! We got an opportunity to share our idea to space industry specialists.

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The Best of the Best 4.0 program!

Summer 2019

After weeks of preparations the relevant documents, we finally got an results! The Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education awarded the Stardust project co-financing in the amount of PLN 225,000 (~ EUR 50,000) under the "Best of the Best! 4.0" program!

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Construction of the vacuum chamber

Autumn 2018

Stardust is not just balloon missions! In 2017, we began building a vacuum chamber to test our solutions in a vacuum before they reach the stratosphere. The project was completely accomplished at the end of 2018, and our chamber worked great!

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First microbiological mission

September 2017

In September 2017 we launched our first microbiological mission from Toruń, Poland. The balloon reached the altitude of almost 30 km. After that, it blew off and fell on the parachute. The landing took place in a small village Kotomierz, on a tree growing next to a small brook

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First mission

April 2016

April the 26th, 2016. Almost exactly four years ago, we had our first balloon mission as Stardust project! At that time, microbiological part was just a loose idea in Karol's head. During the flight, we tested our electronic and structural solutions used in the gondola.

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The very beginning

Spring 2015

In 2015 in SimLE Science Club at Gdańsk University of Technology, young student Karol Pelzner start project called Stardust! It was begining of space journey in which dozens of students they took their first steps in space world.

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Support

ESA ESA Excento SSPG Gdansk University of Technology Rymdstyrelsen Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt POLSA Fundusze Europejskie

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