Microbe Hunter Turned Astronaut Plies Her Trade In Space : Shots - Health News Meet Kate Rubins, a virus-hunter turned astronaut. When she sequenced DNA in space for the first time, she opened the door to a new era in space biology.
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A Microbe Hunter Plies Her Trade In Space

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A Microbe Hunter Plies Her Trade In Space

A Microbe Hunter Plies Her Trade In Space

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A few years ago, an airplane touched down on a grass runway in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and out stepped microbiologist Kate Rubins.

KATE RUBINS: If you put your finger on a map in the middle of Africa, that's about where our field site was located.

MARTIN: Rubins and her colleagues were there to study an outbreak of monkeypox, which is a cousin of the deadly smallpox virus. She didn't know it at the time, but that expedition was actually the beginning of a much bigger journey to outer space. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell has the story of how Kate Rubins became a new kind of astronaut.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: When Rubins got back to Boston after studying deadly viruses in the Congo, a heap of less exciting work was waiting for her. She was a fellow at MIT. And she was writing grants for money to support the lab she just started. It was grueling work, says Rubins, enough so to prompt a colleague to suggest that they take a break and do something fun like apply to become astronauts.

RUBINS: So I found the application online. And I said, you know, why not? I'll take this chance. And maybe it'll be a good story someday about how I applied to be an astronaut.

BICHELL: A few months later, she got a call from Houston.

RUBINS: They said, well, we'd like you to come down to Houston for a job interview (laughter). You know, you feel like saying, well, is this a real job that people actually do?

BICHELL: Rubins doesn't fit the normal astronaut profile. Most tend to start out as Navy pilots or engineers, maybe doctors, not molecular biologists studying viruses. But as it turns out, Rubins was just the kind of person NASA needed at this moment in its history. See, space travel has never been sterile.


TOM STAFFORD: Oh, who did it?

JOHN YOUNG: Did what?


STAFFORD: Who did it? Get me a napkin quick. There's a turd floating through the air.

YOUNG: I didn't do it. It ain't one of mine.

BICHELL: This is archival tape from the Apollo 10 mission. And they're discussing exactly what you think they are - a loose turd floating through their spacecraft.


CERNAN: I don't think it's one of mine.

STAFFORD: Mine was a little more sticky than that.

YOUNG: God almighty.

BICHELL: Back then, astronauts were sealed in a small capsule for a few days. But now, there's the space station, a habitat the size of a six-bedroom house that circles the Earth 200 miles above our heads. The station may have started out pristine, its astronaut crews - not so much.

SARAH CASTRO-WALLACE: We cannot send up a sterile crew.

BICHELL: That's Sarah Castro-Wallace, a microbiologist at NASA's Johnson Space Center. For 16 years straight, crew after crew has been sweating, pooping and puking up there on the station. The microbes they release tend to stick around because the station is sealed like an airplane that never gets opened. Today, it's teeming with non-human life.

CASTRO-WALLACE: Staphylococcus aureus we'll find once in a while, Staphylococcus epidermidis all the time, Staphylococcus hominis, Micrococcus luteus, Burkholderia, Sphingomonas, Penicillium, Aspergillus.

BICHELL: Recently, an entire wall panel turned green with mold.

CASTRO-WALLACE: I mean, imagine your shower curtain at its worst. It was a, you know, a panel, like a large section.

BICHELL: Castro-Wallace says it's becoming really clear that scientists need to know what else is living up there.

CASTRO-WALLACE: If we see something growing on the wall, what is it? If a crew member gets an infection, what is it?

BICHELL: And that's a big reason why NASA not only hired Kate Rubins, they sent her up.


RUBINS: Five, four, three, two, one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Engines at maximum thrust.

RUBINS: And liftoff.

BICHELL: Rubins had 115 days to help set up a molecular biology lab onboard the station. She drew on her experience working in remote places quickly and using minimal equipment.

RUBINS: There's actually an incredible amount of parallels between working in central Congo in a remote isolated village and doing research aboard the space station.

BICHELL: And while she was on the station last fall, I called her up.

Station, this is Rae Bichell with NPR. How do you hear me?

RUBINS: I've got you loud and clear. It's great to be talking to you today.

BICHELL: She'd just gotten the lab up and running and was really excited about it.

RUBINS: So I'm in the U.S. laboratory. And as you can tell, it's absolutely a working laboratory. We have experiments all over the place.

BICHELL: Rubins had just sequenced DNA for the first time in space, showing that in the near future it would be possible to, for example, swab a moldy wall and figure out right then and there what fungus was responsible. While she was floating on the station, she also grew stem cells into heart cells, and peering through a microscope that she set up, watched them beat in unison.

RUBINS: Now really the world of sequencing and molecular biology has opened up to us on a space station.

BICHELL: She's proven it's possible to do molecular biology a couple hundred miles from Earth, and by doing so, that it's also possible a couple million miles away. And that's really important if astronauts are going to Mars because any Mars habitat will be at least as gross as the space station. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.


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