JPL develops high-speed test to improve pathogen decontamination

A chemist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has developed a technology intended to rapidly assess any presence of microbial life on spacecraft. This new method may also help the military test for disease-causing bacteria, such as a causative agent for anthrax, and may also be useful in the medical, pharmaceutical and other fields.

Adrian Ponce, the deputy manager for JPL's planetary science section, devised the new microscope-based method, which has the potential to quickly validate — from days to minutes — a spacecraft's cleanliness. ??NASA adheres to international protocols by striving to ensure that spacecraft don't harbor life from Earth that could contaminate other planets or moons and skew science research.

Microbes known as bacterial endospores can withstand extreme temperatures, ultraviolet rays and chemical treatments, and have been known to survive in space for six years. This resilience makes them important indicators for cleanliness and biodefense, Ponce said.

"Bacterial endospores are the toughest form of life on Earth," Ponce explained. "Therefore, if one can show that all spores are killed, then less-resistant, disease-causing organisms will also be dead."

The technology has piqued the interest of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The federal agency is funding development of a portable instrument based on Ponce's research that could quickly check for decontamination of pathogens after a biological attack. Ponce is working with the Department of Homeland Security and Advance Space Monitor, a company based in Falls River, Mass., to develop the instrument, which they plan to have ready for use by 2011.

"This could significantly reduce the time and cost of building restoration following a bio-contamination event," said James Anthony, chemical and biological research and development program manager at the Department of Homeland Security.