Since the Viking missions in the mid- 1970s, traditional culture-based methods have been used for microbial enumeration by various NASA programs. Viable microbes are of particular concern for spacecraft cleanliness, for forward contamination of extraterrestrial bodies (proliferation of microbes), and for crew health/safety (viable pathogenic microbes). However, a “true” estimation of viable microbial population and differentiation from their dead cells using the most sensitive molecular methods is a challenge, because of the stability of DNA from dead cells.

The goal of this research is to evaluate a rapid and sensitive microbial detection concept that will selectively estimate viable microbes. Nucleic acid amplification approaches such as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) have shown promise for reducing time to detection for a wide range of applications. The proposed method is based on the use of a fluorescent DNA intercalating agent, propidium monoazide (PMA), which can only penetrate the membrane of dead cells. The PMAquenched reaction mixtures can be screened, where only the DNA from live cells will be available for subsequent PCR reaction and microarray detection, and be identified as part of the viable microbial community. An additional advantage of the proposed rapid method is that it will detect viable microbes and differentiate from dead cells in only a few hours, as opposed to less comprehensive culturebased assays, which take days to complete. This novel combination approach is called the PMA-Microarray method.

DNA intercalating agents such as PMA have previously been used to selectively distinguish between viable and dead bacterial cells. Once in the cell, the dye intercalates with the DNA and, upon photolysis under visible light, produces stable DNA adducts. DNA cross-linked in this way is unavailable for PCR. Environmental samples suspected of containing a mixture of live and dead microbial cells/spores will be treated with PMA, and then incubated in the dark. Thereafter, the sample is exposed to visible light for five minutes, so that the DNA from dead cells will be cross-linked. Following this PMA treatment step, the sample is concentrated by centrifugation and washed (to remove excessive PMA) before DNA is extracted. The 16S rRNA gene fragments will be amplified by PCR to screen the total microbial community using PhyloChip DNA microarray analysis. This approach will detect only the viable microbial community since the PMA intercalated DNA from dead cells would be unavailable for PCR amplification. The total detection time including PCR reaction for low biomass samples will be a few hours.

Numerous markets may use this technology. The food industry uses spore detection to validate new alternative food processing technologies, sterility, and quality. Pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies also detect spores as a marker for sterility. This system can be used for validating sterilization processes, water treatment systems, and in various public health and homeland security applications.

This work was done by Kasthuri J. Venkateswaran and Christina N. Stam of Caltech, and Gary L. Andersen and Todd DeSantis of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In accordance with Public Law 96-517, the contractor has elected to retain title to this invention. Inquiries concerning rights for its commercial use should be addressed to:

Innovative Technology Assets Management JPL
Mail Stop 202-233
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena, CA 91109-8099
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the December, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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