Kuwait, a small country in the Arabian Gulf region, is preparing for the historic launch of its first space experiment to the International Space Station. This achievement is especially remarkable because the payload has been developed by high school students.
Team members Mahlak Abdullah, Omar Kammourieh, Gunha Kim, and Kyle Balasingam from the American School of Kuwait were selected as the winners of the Experiments in Space Competition for their project titled E. coli Consuming Carbon Dioxide to Combat Climate Change (abbreviated as E. coli C⁵). This competition was organized in 2019 as a collaboration between DreamUp, Nanoracks, and Orbital Space, a space startup with roots in Kuwait.
The idea for the project came from the team’s interest in the issue of climate change. “We really wanted to make sure we were targeting something that was related to environmental sustainability,” says Omar, who is now in his first year studying sustainable development at Columbia University in New York, NY, USA.
As the president of the Science National Honors Society at American School of Kuwait, Mahlak helped to organize the team. “We immediately knew we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity,” she says. “We came up with an idea, posed it in the competition, and we were lucky enough to be the first in Kuwait’s history to send a payload to space.”
With the support of scientific mentors Dr. Leila Vali and Dr. Bassam Alfeeli, the team identified a genetically modified strain of E. coli bacteria that uses atmospheric carbon dioxide as a food source. It then converts this carbon dioxide into biomass. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide represents three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change and its range of effects on Earth such as extreme weather and respiratory complications.
The experiment will investigate how this E. coli strain consumes carbon dioxide in microgravity. In the future, this could be used in space as part of a scrubbing system to clean the air inside spacecraft. The biomass generated could even possibly be used as a biofuel or a food source for astronauts for long-term missions. The bacteria could also help remove carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere, reducing the effects of climate change.
The E. Coli C⁵ experiment uses a Nanoracks Mixstix, a small silicon tube divided into three chambers. An astronaut on the International Space Station will remove the clamps between the chambers and shake the tube, allowing the contents to mix. The E. coli will then begin consuming the carbon dioxide. An identical experiment will be carried out on Earth to compare the bacteria’s growth rate. The experiment launch is planned for December 2020.
The upcoming launch is the culmination of months of hard work for the students. “It’s been a lot of trial and error,” explains Omar. “I’ve been going to Kuwait University’s labs for months now, and sometimes I spend six hour sessions just working with the [Mixstix] tube and the bacteria.” Through extensive testing, the team has determined the best materials to use and how to integrate them into the payload.
The team has especially shown resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team has adjusted their work process to comply with local health and safety protocols, such as wearing masks in the lab and conducting meetings virtually. Despite these changes, the team’s passion and excitement about the scientific process has carried them through every challenge.
“We’re actually making discoveries in the scientific world, which is very interesting,” Omar says. “It’s definitely a learning curve, but I’m much more knowledgeable about a lot of things than I was in December of 2019.”
Regarding the learning process, Kyle adds, “We’ve also held weekly meetings with our mentors. One of them is Dr. Laila from Kuwait University, and we’ve learned a lot from her teachings. It’s been very educational.” Dr. Bassam also helped the team meet deadlines and prepared needed documents.
The students have learned many important lessons from their experience.
For one, the scientific process has given Omar more confidence in solving problems. “We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road, and we’ve had to think quickly and counter with solutions. That skill of coming up with quick solutions to problems that arise is something that not only will benefit us in college, but also in life in general,” he says. The project helped him explore his interests, and he is now taking college courses related to climate change.
For Kyle, balancing the project with schoolwork and other commitments helped him improve his time management skills. “I feel like I’m more productive as a person,” he says. This has helped him during his college applications and other commitments. After graduating from high school next year, he hopes to study medicine.
Mahlak emphasizes the importance of teamwork. “What we really do well is dividing up the work, splitting and conquering,” she says. The research experience has prepared her for her coursework at the University of California San Diego, where she is now studying Human Biology.
As a junior in high school, Gunha is just beginning his involvement in the experiment, but he is preparing to fill the shoes of Mahlak and Omar as they transition to college life. He has been attending weekly meetings to learn more about the science behind the experiment.
This upcoming launch is a historic and exciting moment both for the young researchers and for their country. The results will potentially contribute valuable insights to the field of synthetic biology and help to mitigate climate change. The team’s hard work will also lay the foundation for future space-based research in Kuwait.
To learn more about their research, watch the students discuss their experiences in their recent TEDx talk:
For more information about how DreamUp enables student research in space, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Alison Waterman, Project Specialist at DreamUp