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ARS, NASA Explore Food Safety Research

By Jim Core
June 28, 2001

Helping humans establish bases on the moon or explore the cold surface of Mars could result from cooperative research between scientists with the Agricultural Research Service and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

NASA is interested in developing practical and economical life support systems for long-duration space missions. The natural function of crop plants could be used on such missions to produce food, purify water, regenerate oxygen, remove undesirable components of the air and process waste materials, according to Anabelle Matos, research microbiologist with ARS’ Eastern Regional Research Center, Wyndmoor, Pa.

Matos is working on a collaborative research project with Jay L. Garland, the program leader and lead microbial ecologist of NASA’s Advanced Life Support (ALS) program at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. NASA wants to control the spread of potentially pathogenic microorganisms in closed environments during space exploration missions.

Matos came to ERRC in 1999 after eight years with the NASA ALS program, where she studied how to make long-duration space missions feasible. Specifically, she concentrated on controlling the microbial pathogen Pseudomonas areruginosa by using microbial competition, a form of biological control. This pathogen has been isolated from previous NASA missions and presents potential problems for future space missions.

Matos works with lead scientist William F. Fett and colleagues Gerald Sapers, Ching-Hsing Liao and Dike Ukuku in the ERRC’s Plant Science and Technology Research Unit. Matos’ current research involves using “competitive exclusion,” a biological control approach, to develop treatments that suppress the growth of foodborne pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7, on alfalfa sprouts. Scientists explain it as “using good microorganisms to fight bad microorganisms.”

Today, Matos will speak for the second consecutive year at the Kennedy Space Center’s Spaceflight and Life Sciences Training Program (SLSTP) about the collaboration. SLSTP is an intensive, six-week program for undergraduate college students interested in learning how to successfully design and conduct biological research and operations in space.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.