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Oklahoma City professor sends project on space shuttle

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A UMNS photo courtesy of Oklahoma City University

Kent Buchanan (right) poses in front of the Space Shuttle Atlantis along with co- investigators Michael Schurr and Chery Nickerson.
Sept. 14, 2006

By United Methodist News Service*

A professor at a United Methodist-related college is participating in activities aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, which docked with the International Space Station on Sept. 11.

Kent Buchanan, a biology professor at Oklahoma City University, sent a “life science experiment” to space to investigate the effect of space flight on microbes—microscopic organisms, particularly bacteria that can cause disease. Buchanan’s research is on microbial gene expression and virulence.

He is one of four scientists studying organisms on the shuttle. The group received a $1 million grant from NASA for the work about five years ago. Several organisms are being tested; Buchanan’s focus through the Candida Project is on a microbe called Candida albicans.

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A UMNS photo courtesy of Oklahoma City University

Candida Project personnel perform quality control on the flight hardware loaded with the microbes.
Buchanan and his team prepared for the space shuttle launch for two and a half years. Prior to Atlantis’ Sept. 9 launch, the team had waited through cancellations and other delays caused by bad weather, equipment failure, Hurricane Katrina and the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

“This is only the third flight since Columbia, and a lot of life science projects were cut,” Buchanan explained. The Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. “Since this is going up now, it signals that it’s a high priority for NASA.”

While the organisms are in space, an astronaut will rotate the container that holds them to initiate the experiment and then repeat the process periodically to keep it going. “Every time they do something in space, we’ll do the identical on the ground, so that the only difference is they’re in space,” Buchanan said.

The results will help determine the effect of space on organisms that have the potential to cause diseases in astronauts during long-term flight.

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A UMNS photo courtesy of NASA

The Space Shuttle Atlantis launches from the Kennedy Space Center.
Chery Nickerson at Arizona State University is the principal investigator for the project. Buchanan is a co-investigator, along with Tim Hammond and Michael Schurr of Tulane University Health Sciences Center.

Buchanan moved to Oklahoma City last year from the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina left the Tulane University Medical Building where he worked inoperable. He said he was thankful to be able to continue teaching and working on the experiment, and he plans to travel to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., for Atlantis’ landing on Sept. 19.

“We’ll get (the organisms) off the shuttle as fast as we can for the virulence studies,” he explained.

“The astronauts are very excited about it,” he said. “This has become one of the highlights in my scientific career. It has turned out to be a big honor for me.”

The six-member crew of Atlantis launched Sept. 9 on an 11-day construction mission to the International Space Station.

*This story was adapted from a press release by Leslie Berger, communications and marketing writer at Oklahoma City University.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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Resources

Oklahoma City University

What the United Methodist Church says about space travel

NASA-Atlantis

Wikipedia: Microorganism