The shuttle-bug express Science: Oil-gulping bacteria from Baltimore ride the space shuttle as part of an experiment by Southern High students.

November 26, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Somewhere in space, tucked deep inside a mid-deck locker on the space shuttle Columbia, is a bit of bacteria from Baltimore.

It's a microbiology experiment, no bigger than a pair of peas. But it's there because a group of students at Southern High School wanted to learn more about oil-eating bacteria, and because a scientist at Baltimore's Columbus Center agreed to help.

After the shuttle lands on Dec. 5, the Southern High students will get the experiments back for examination. But they have already learned much about how scientists work, and how writing, math, critical thinking and just showing up are important to their future in a changing world.

"It's the future. That's the best thing about it," said senior Felicia Taylor, 18.

The story began in September 1995 at the Columbus Center, the Inner Harbor biotechnology research center. Mamie Green, a teacher in Southern's biotechnology program, took her class there on a "Meet the Scientists" field trip.

While there, she asked John Hind, a postdoctoral research assistant with the University of Maryland's Center of Marine Biotechnology, for a biotechnology project her students could tackle.

"So I got involved," Hind said. Together, he and Green came up with a research idea. And with help from City Hall, they found the means to give summer jobs to 20 Southern High students to do research for five to six weeks last summer.

Their focus was bacteria -- specifically, bacteria that produce a bio-surfactant, a substance that helps them break down hydrocarbons such as oil. From that breakdown, the bacteria can derive energy, while turning the hydrocar- bons into something harmless to the environment.

Plenty of man-made surfactants exist, like detergents. But many are toxic, so scientists are working to identify and mass-produce bacteria that can make the same compounds naturally, Hind said. "They are less toxic, more biodegradeable, they can be used at lower concentrations, and they are more efficient."

The students' task last summer was to find strains of bacteria in Baltimore that produce these bio-surfactants, and isolate them.

Star gunk: first contact

They gathered samples from water and oily spots around Southern High School, the Patapsco River -- wherever they thought oil-loving bacteria might live. It wasn't always pleasant. Or clean.

"I didn't know what was in that water. I didn't want to touch it," Taylor said.

But to sophomore Ian Fannon, 16, participation was an eye-opener. "It gave me an idea of what it felt like to be in this kind of a job," he said. "It was interesting."

In the lab, the students learned to extract and cultivate the bacteria, and then to separate the species they'd found.

Because Southern's lab lacked some needed equipment, Hind said, "we were unable to get all the way through the project." The bacteria had to be taken to the Columbus Center for tests to determine whether any were making surfactants. So far, he said, "we did find one that we thought was making a surfactant."

In the meantime, with assistance from Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office and the Goddard Space Flight Center, Southern High was chosen to devise a microgravity experiment that could fly on the space shuttle. That opportunity was provided by Instrumentation Technology Associates (ITA), of Exton, Pa.

ITA sells space on the suitcase-sized microgravity laboratories it flies on shuttles twice each year. Since 1991, the company has donated 5 percent of its space for student projects, and 20 schools have participated. "It's a way of getting students involved in the space program and the scientific process," said Rick Knoll, ITA's director of business operations.

For Hind, Green and a core of five of her students -- Ian Fannon, Henry Nelson, Jamaal Johnson, Eric Gilmore and John Bryant -- the challenge was to come up with a meaningful experiment involving bio-surfactants.

The next generation

From their reading, the students learned that chemical and physical processes can change in microgravity, Green said. "And we hypothesized that it may also have an effect on the bio-surfactant." Perhaps the bio-surfactant action would be improved.

Because their own samples were not ready, Hind supplied the students with two types of bio-surfactants his laboratory has been investigating, and designed a simple experiment to test their effectiveness in microgravity.

One measure is to add them to olive oil, shake the mixtures like an oil-and-vinegar salad dressing, and see how long the surfactants can keep the oil in a stable emulsion -- that is, prevent the tiny oil droplets from coalescing again.

In the Southern High experiment on Columbia, two pea-sized chambers containing emulsions of bio-surfactants and olive oil have been subjected to the violent shaking of launch, and what is expected to be 16 days of microgravity.

"What we're interested in is, 'Does the emulsion break down as a result of those forces?' " Hind said. Stable emulsions can have real benefits. A mix of crude oil and a good surfactant, for example, could move more easily through an oil pipeline.

The experiment is "primarily for the kids," Hind said. "I had no intention of putting anything in space." For Mamie Green, however, the benefit is already plain to see in her students.

"It's a way of integrating the sciences we have learned, and to learn more by bringing in an element of space," she said.

What's more, she said, "we integrate a lot of things, like writing, math and thinking skills." They learned about responsibility because they have to meet deadlines. They also learned "a lot of microbiology skills they would not normally get to until college," she said.

The experience has changed some of them, Green said. "The students want to know what more we can do. They're asking themselves a lot of questions."

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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