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Forget the Super Bowl, Microbes Are Playing Sports in Outer Space

Winners of Project MERCCURI’s “Microbial Playoffs” include a specimen swabbed from the bottom of astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s shoe.

​The Super Bowl will dominate headlines this weekend, but a more historic bit of news just dropped in the world of competitive sports. On Friday, scientists announced the winners of the very first outer space sporting event. Each of the contestants is smaller than a pinprick.

Project MERCCURI, the cheerleader-driven effort to understand how microbes behave in space, has just released the results of a competition that's been brewing at the International Space Station for the past nine months. Now we know which bacteria, amongst forty eight elite contestants drafted from a pool of hundreds, are planet Earth's finest in terms of growth rates, endurance, and team spirit.

"Our core mission is really to convey to the public that microbes are everywhere, and they're not all bad," David Coil, a microbial ecologist at UC Davis, andalead scientist behind Project MERCCURI, told me over the phone. "By engaging sports fans, we're attempting to reach out to people who might not otherwise spend time thinking about microbiology."

Winners of Project MERCCURI's "Microbial Playoffs" include a specimen of Kocuria rhizophila swabbed from the bottom of astronaut Buzz Aldrin's shoe, a hardy strain of Bacillus pumilus that Pop Warner Chittenango Bears cheerleaders found in a Porta-Poddy, and Paenibacillus elgii, a lesser-known contender which hails from a Mars Exploration Rover parked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Virtually every structure humans build is swiftly overtaken by literally trillions of unseen bacteria. Spaceships, it turns out, are no exception. While a handful of space microbes have raised alarm bells over the years for their ability to make astronauts sick, far less attention has been given to the loads of benign bacteria that also hitch a ride into orbit. But if these critters are going to be with us in space for the long haul, it's important for scientists to understand how the unique environment of a spaceship will affect them.

"If you're going to seal people in metal box and send them to Mars, you'd really like to know how all the normal, human-associated microbes are going to respond," Coil said.

There's good cause to suspect that spaceflight might influence Earth's smallest inhabitants. Several studies have found that zero-g changes the structure of bacterial biofilms, while others have noted how cosmic radiation may select for hardier organisms. But as to the vast majority of the countless bacteria out there, we simply have no information.

Beyond its research goals, Project MERCCURI is an prime example of scientists engaging the public about a pretty wonky subject. That's due, by and large, to the involvement of Science Cheerleaders, an outreach organization comprised of current and former professional cheerleaders who are pursuing a master's degree or PhD in a science field. It was Science Cheerleaders who conceived of the microbial competition and brought the idea to researchers at UC Davis. Together, scientists and cheerleaders spent a year traveling to sporting events, teaching spectators about microbes, and encouraging citizens to submit their own samples to the Microbial Playoffs.

Arizona Cardinals cheerleading squad prepping samples. Image: Project MERCCURI

From hundreds of submissions, the scientists drafted a team of nearly 50 bacteria, and in April of 2014, the bugs were blasted into orbit to compete onboard the ISS. Unfortunately, due to equipment failures, the actual growth experiment ended up being delayed for months.

Finally, from December 8th through the 12th, the playoffs took place. The winners were announced Friday, with bacteria recognized for their performance in three different categories. "Best sprinter" went to the competitor that took off fastest during its exponential growth phase, "best huddle" was awarded to critter that achieved the highest growth density, and "best tip off" recognized the contestant that grew most aggressively right off the bat. Growth stats for each bacterium are now being compared to those of its Earth-bound cousin.

"What matters most is not actually the competition results, but how these characteristics differ between microbes in space and controls on Earth," Coil said. "If you see something that grows well up there, but it also grows well on Earth, that's less exciting than a microbe in space vastly outperforming its Earth counterpart."

To Coil, even more significant was the fact that every single species managed to survive the long wait aboard the ISS before the contest took place.

"Even after spending nine months in the freezer and being bombarded with cosmic rays, all bacteria still grew," he said. "That itself is a pretty amazing finding!"

So, whether you cozy up into your couch this Sunday for a long afternoon of football, or, like millions of Americans, find yourself more captivated by The Walking Dead, just know that the real champions this year have quietly endured more hardship than any NFL player or zombie apocalypse survivor. And they've done so in outer space.

Personally, I haven't been this excited about sports in years.