Microbial Factories

Bacteria and Drones: New Ways to Collect Samples

Sample collection in hard-to-reach and harsh environments has often made scientific research a costly and dangerous exercise. Luckily technology has helped us overcome some of these difficulties.

Although costly robots, for instance, have for a long time been the equipment of choice to collect samples in space. But there is a new competitor for the robot space-sample collector. Experiments have shown that a remarkable amount of small organisms are able to survive in space. ESA researchers have send living kombucha bacteria into space to look for signs of life.

Kombucha is mostly known as a drink for hipsters, but the bacteria cultures that ferment the drink have shown to be able to withstand the harsh conditions of vacuum, extreme temperature, direct sunlight and cosmic rays.

ESA installed containers covered with small layers of kombucha cultures on the outside of the International Space Station. Extraterrestrial bacteria and amino-acids flying in outer space could stick to the kombucha. Amino-acids are an essential building block of live. Finding them in space would be a big step towards finding extraterrestrial life.

This first attempt to put organic material at work as sample collectors won’t exclude the employ of robots right away. Instead, the use of robots in other fields of research is rising. In recent years, robot technology has become much more cheap and accessible, especially drones have opened many new possibilities.

An example is the application of drones in whale research. Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA employ drones to collect whale snot. The snot whales spray from their backs contains bacteria, viruses and hormones from the whale respiratory tract. These samples can tell a lot about the whale’s overall health and stress levels. The drone, called “snot-bot”, can fly over the cetacean while it sprays the snot and collect samples.
The snot-bot will make whale research much safer. Another advantage is that the whales are not disturbed by the drones, they just ignore them.

So while a hipster-drink bacteria are hunting space organisms, robots are catching whale snot in the open ocean. The outcomes of these researches might bring us closer to an even more unimaginable future.

Source: ESA, Wired. Image via Action Drone