Discover Your Island

Islander Researchers to Launch Marine Fungus into Space

January 26, 2017

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – In a quest to unveil the limits of life, Dr. Brandi Kiel Reese, Dr. Heath Mills, and Morgan Sobol will be sending a fungus from the depths of the ocean into space. Reese, Assistant Professor of Microbial Ecology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, talked about the importance of the fungus taking flight.

“There’s genetic potential because this is something that’s been locked away in the deep subsurface for a hundred million years. This fungus has definitely had a different evolution and adaption,” said Reese. “Everything builds upon itself. You have to go from discovery and testing to potentially building it to, perhaps, a medication one day.”

This fungus, related to Penicillium chrysogenium, was collected from the sediment within the South Pacific Gyre—126 meters below the sea floor—and is estimated to be 73 million years old. The South Pacific Gyre is an ocean desert, a harsh environment for organisms to exist. Reese has been studying the organism since 2010 and has incorporated Sobol, a master’s student in marine biology, into the project. Checking the growth every six months to a year, observations show the growth remains slow. Due to the sloth-like nature of this specimen, there’s hope that the effects of microgravity will accelerate its growth process.  

By taking the marine fungus into space, Island University researchers aim to determine how microgravity will affect the growth rate, morphology and the metabolic activity of the fungus. Morphology is the study of the macroscopic structure of an organism and its individual parts. Part of this objective will be accomplished by comparing the fungus in space to the control group on Earth. In space, there will be triplicate sets that will be cultivated for one, two, and four weeks. Once back on Earth, the frozen cultures will be returned to Reese’s Molecular Geomicrobiology lab on campus. These side-by-side experiments will determine the differences found in microgravity. While the end goal of the project isn’t necessarily to produce new penicillin, depending on the growth rate, there’s potential down the line.

Sobol, who oversees the control fungus on Earth, is excited to be a part of the research team. While a potential antibiotic would be beneficial, Sobol’s interest also lies in extremophiles. The fungus is considered an extremophile due it being able to survive in the ocean desert with little nutrients and carbon.

“Besides it possibly producing a novel antibiotic, I think trying to understand the limits of life and how organisms can adapt to harsh environments is important. If you bring a deep subsurface fungus into space, you are taking it from one extreme environment to another to test and demonstrate those limits,” said Sobol.

It is thanks to a grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which is a subsidiary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and assistance from Space Technology and Advanced Research Systems, Inc (STaARS) that not only funds this project, but also pays for Sobol’s assistance.

Reese and Sobol will also be working with Mills, the CEO of STaARS, Mills has been working with Reese since 2015 and will handle the logistics between the Islanders, the International Space Station, NASA and seeing the project take off into space. The analysis after the flight will be done in Reese’s laboratory at Texas A&M-Corpus Christ and will be assisted by Mills’s biotechnology laboratory at STaARS.

This hardy marine fungus will be taking flight on Sunday, April 9, 2017, on board SpaceX-11. To learn more about the lab, visit facebook.com/ReeseLab.