Space squid How two UF students harnessed the power of crowdfunding science

By Jonathan Griffin/UF News

Researchers at the University of Florida are studying the effects of microgravity on squids to give humans a better shot at staying healthy in the unforgiving environment of spaceflight, and they are doing it with the help of crowdfunding.

Jamie Foster, a UF associate professor of microbiology and cell science in the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, and her team aim to understand how to maintain health during extended trips in space. This would be particularly useful to astronauts aboard the International Space Station or, in the future, a vessel headed for Mars.

Although traditional funding remains critical for space research, opportunities have been sparse in recent years. To continue this work, Madeline Vroom and Alexandrea Duscher, two doctoral students in Foster’s lab, sought to supplement their grants by seeking the help of the public. The pair crowdfunded $8,400 to fund their “Squid in Space” project where the effects of microgravity on the expression of squid genes will be investigated at Space Florida's Space Life Sciences Lab, which was established through a partnership between NASA, Kennedy Space Center and the state of Florida.

The researchers say the experience gave them the opportunity to involve the public in a new way and become more engaged scientists in the process.

“It was a just a really neat experience for us, and I think a great opportunity to force ourselves to talk about research in a way non-scientists can understand and enjoy,” Duscher said.

Research has shown that long-term spaceflight alters the physiology of living organisms, compromising the immune systems of astronauts and making harmful bacteria even more ferocious. But there is not as much known about how space impacts our microbiome, which is composed of trillions of microscopic organisms, or microbes, that colonize our bodies. Some of these microbes, like bacteria, can be a great benefit for our health.

To understand how helpful bacteria behave in microgravity, Foster and her lab study the shimmering, thumb-sized Hawaiian bobtail squid, the first cephalopods to travel to space. While humans host thousands of different types of bacteria, these squids are home to just a single type of bacteria, making them much easier to study.

On Earth, these glowing bacteria, named Vibrio fischeri, help squids camouflage themselves from predators, but in space they may play another important role, says Foster.

A previous study from Foster’s lab has shown that in space-like conditions, the bacteria may help decrease stress on the squids by modulating their innate immune response—a general type of immunity present in all animals, including humans.

“We think that having your beneficial microbes is going to be essential for maintaining health in the space environment,” Foster says.

Foster’s two students examine the effects of microgravity on Earth by placing newly hatched squids into fluid-filled rotating vessels. The rotation puts the squids in a continuous state of free-fall, mimicking the weightless aspect of space.

The crowdfunding came in handy after the squids left microgravity. Duscher and Vroom are using the funds to analyze genes related to the innate immune system in squids, either with or without their bacteria, with a highly accurate and rapid method called NanoString sequencing.

To fund the sequencing, the pair posted their project on Experiment.com, a website for crowdfunding research projects. Their post titled “Squid in Space: Symbiosis and Innate Immunity” described the project through text and a video and received over 6,000 views. (The video the students created to inform the public about their project is shown below.)

To encourage pledges, both the researchers and Experiment.com promoted the project through Twitter and Facebook. Duscher and Vroom also made daily posts showing off various aspects of their research on the crowdfunding website to garner further interest.

The students say that creating donation incentives also played a large role in helping them achieve their goal. By making pledges, project backers would receive items like squid-themed pouches and cardholders, handmade by Foster.

A popular donation incentive was the opportunity to adopt a squid, where adopters would receive a picture of a baby squid and were given the liberty to name it anything they wanted, Duscher says.

The adopted squid names ranged from everyday names, like Charley and Barbara, to the pun-based Billy the Squid and Squid Rock.

Baby bobtail squid at the Space Life Sciences Lab.

Within one week, the project raised almost half of the $7,300 goal. During the remainder of the crowdfunding campaign, which ran for 45 days, Duscher and Vroom continually interacted with backers and raised money up until the end of the funding period.

“We posted and talked to people every day,” Duscher says. “As soon as people donated, especially if they adopted a squid, we would send them a thank-you note along with a picture of their squid.”

By the end of the 45 days, the project received support from 163 backers and surpassed the initial goal by over $1,000.

Since then, samples have been shipped off for NanoString sequencing as planned and Foster’s lab eagerly awaits results that they hope reveal distinct genes that could explain the effects of microgravity.

To better understand how to keep astronauts healthy in space, Foster and her lab will continue studying bobtail squids and their bacteria. Looking ahead, Foster intends to replicate the studies conducted on Earth in real microgravity by getting both species sent back into orbit.

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Courtesy of the Foster Lab

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