Project Name: Motile Microbes in Space

Customer: UK Space Agency - In collaboration with the University of Edinburgh

Objective: Derive an architecture of the MOTILE hardware based on designs with space heritage


Microbes are generally too small to directly detect gravity. They are typically 1 μm in size and this size does not allow for the formation of gravity-driven gradients. Yet microgravity is known to influence the way in which microbes grow in biofilms, as well as enhance the virulence of microbes and their ability to survive extremes.

One explanation is the indirect effects of gravity: on the Earth gravity produces eddies and convective effects that drive nutrients over the surface of bacteria and enhance their ability to grow. In microgravity, fluid flow is generally reduced and bacteria sit in a static state in the fluid. As the nutrients around the bacterial cell are used up, this may cause starvation; this stress may trigger response pathways that result in enhanced virulence and ability to survive extremes.

Some micro-organisms possess flagella that allow them to actively propel themselves through fluid to new nutrients. The well-studied laboratory organism, Escherichia coli, can be found as motile and non-motile strains. This makes it an ideal candidate to study if there is a difference in growth and biochemistry between a microbe that can swim in space and one that cannot. Examples of potential impact are:

  • in a bioregenerative life support system, e.g. for processing human waste or water, would it be better to have microbes that are able to move to access pockets of fluid that are static?
  • reduce the pathogenicity or virulence of microbes used in any form of life support system by selecting motile strains
  • use motile bacteria them in a whole range of industrial processes in space where they may be more effective in spreading through a system and doing chemical transformations on substrates

Kayser Space was responsible for the design of a system to perform the MOTILE experiment on the ISS, requiring a number of bioreactors installed in a stand-alone container. The design baseline approach was the adaptation of existing hardware (Kayser’s Biorock module and Biokon container) in order to meet the anticipated flight schedule and maintain a cost-effective budget. A key development in this project was the design of a sensor suite and its accommodation into the bioreactor, in particular the implementation of a turbidity detector.


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