University Partnerships

California Institute of Technology (CALTECH)

JPL's beginnings can be traced back to a few Caltech students and amateur rocket enthusiasts in the mid-1930s. After an unintended explosion on campus, the group and its experiments relocated to an isolated area next to the San Gabriel Mountains: the present-day site of JPL. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was founded in October 1958, and JPL turned its attention from the rockets themselves to the payloads (scientific spacecraft) they would carry. JPL is an FFRDC (Federally Funded Research and Development Center), and is managed for NASA by Caltech under a contractual arrangement begun in 1958. Thus, “JPLers” are Caltech employees, not government civil servants. Moreover, the Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group at JPL often works with Caltech researchers and scientists to augment space microbiology research.

Relevant Publications

Vaishampayan, Parag, et al. "Bacillus horneckiae sp. nov., isolated from a spacecraft-assembly clean room." International journal of systematic and evolutionary microbiology 60.5 (2010): 1031-1037.

California State University Northridge (CSUN)

Collaboration with the CSUN Biology Department overlaps in several areas of mutual interest. One interest includes the Whole Genome Sequencing of special microorganisms from the Biological Materials Archive at JPL. JPL has hosted CSUN students as summer interns working on the spacecraft microbiology culture collection archive and Heat Microbial reduction projects.

University of California San Diego (UCSD)

The Knight Lab at UCSD School of Medicine, led by Rob Knight, uses and develops state-of-the-art computational and experimental techniques to study different aspects of microbiome research; from bacterial culturing to metagenomic, metatranscriptomic, and metabolimic data production and analysis. The lab also has an affiliation with the university’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering because of Rob’s expertise in bioinformatics. The Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group is particularly interested in the microbiome of spacecraft assembly cleanrooms at JPL. Thus, JPL often takes advantage of the bioinformatics capabilities of the Knight Lab.

University of Houston (UH)

Through a JPL sub-contract, the University of Houston designed a software program called STITCH: Nucleotide sequence algorithms that Search, Trim, Identify, Track, and Capture uniqueness using public and in-House databases. The STITCH software can process raw genetic sequences to automatically remove unwanted vector information, reverse complement, stitch, and search against the user’s choice of public and in-house databases in a single command. The STITCH software can manipulate multiple sequences simultaneously to perform the analyses described above in just a few minutes, as opposed to the hours or days required using current techniques.

Researchers at JPL also collaborate with the University of Houston for microbiome work. The International Space Station has a unique environment (constant presence of humans, microgravity, space radiation, and elevated carbon dioxide). Understanding the nature of the biological communities of the space station is key to managing astronaut health and maintenance of equipment. "Studying the microbial community on the space station helps us better understand the bacteria present there, so that we can identify species that could potentially damage equipment or pose harm to astronaut health. It also helps us identify areas that need more rigorous cleaning," said Kasthuri Venkateswaran (JPL Scientist working in Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group). Venkateswaran and colleagues are using the latest DNA sequencing technologies to rapidly, and precisely, identify the microorganisms present on the space station.

Relevant Publications

Zhu, Dianhui, et al. "STITCH: algorithm to splice, trim, identify, track, and capture the uniqueness of 16s rRNAs sequence pairs using public or in-house database." Microbial ecology 61.3 (2011): 669-675.

Checinska, Aleksandra, et al. "Microbiomes of the dust particles collected from the International Space Station and Spacecraft Assembly Facilities." Microbiome 3.1 (2015): 1.

Gioia, Jason, et al. "Paradoxical DNA repair and peroxide resistance gene conservation in Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032." PLoS One 2.9 (2007): e928.

Tirumalai, Madhan R., et al. "Candidate genes that may be responsible for the unusual resistances exhibited by Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 spores." PLoS One 8.6 (2013): e66012.

Stepanov, Victor G., et al. "Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 Genome Revisited: Sequence Update and Re-Annotation." PloS one 11.6 (2016): e0157331.

Stepanov, Victor G., et al. "Draft genome sequence of Deinococcus phoenicis, a novel strain isolated during the Phoenix Lander spacecraft assembly." Genome announcements 2.2 (2014): e00301-14.

University of Southern California (USC)

JPL is partnering with researchers at USC to be the first team in the world to launch fungi into space. The stressful environment of the International Space Station (ISS) could trigger fungi to produce secondary metabolites, which can be used in pharmaceuticals. Kasthuri Venkateswaran (“Venkat”), senior research scientist at JPL said, “Until now, we have sent bacteria and yeast to the ISS. We have also exposed fungi to facilities outside ISS, but this is the first time we are growing fungi inside ISS to seek new drug discovery. NASA needs to develop self-sustaining measures to keep humans healthy in space because calling 911 is not an option.”

Relevant Publications

Singh, Nitin Kumar, et al. "Draft genome sequences of two Aspergillus fumigatus strains, isolated from the International Space Station." Genome Announcements 4.4 (2016): e00553-16.


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