Frequently there is an inability to process and analyze samples of low biomass due to limiting amounts of relevant biomaterial in the sample. Furthermore, molecular biological protocols geared towards increasing the density of recovered cells and biomolecules of interest, by their very nature, also concentrate unwanted inhibitory humic acids and other particulates that have an adversarial effect on downstream analysis.

A novel and robust fluorescence-activated cell-sorting (FACS)-based technology has been developed for purifying (removing cells from sampling matrices), separating (based on size, density, morphology), and concentrating cells (spores, prokaryotic, eukaryotic) from a sample low in biomass.

The technology capitalizes on fluorescent cell-sorting technologies to purify and concentrate bacterial cells from a low-biomass, high-volume sample. Over the past decade, cell-sorting detection systems have undergone enhancements and increased sensitivity, making bacterial cell sorting a feasible concept. Although there are many unknown limitations with regard to the applicability of this technology to environmental samples (smaller cells, few cells, mixed populations), dogmatic principles support the theoretical effectiveness of this technique upon thorough testing and proper optimization. Furthermore, the pilot study from which

this report is based proved effective and demonstrated this technology capable of sorting and concentrating bacterial endospore and bacterial cells of varying size and morphology.

Two commercial off-the-shelf bacterial counting kits were used to optimize a bacterial stain/dye FACS protocol. A LIVE/DEAD BacLight Viability and Counting Kit was used to distinguish between the live and dead cells. A Bacterial Counting Kit comprising SYTO BC (mixture of SYTO dyes) was employed as a broad-spectrum bacterial counting agent. Optimization using epifluorescence microscopy was performed with these two dye/stains. This refined protocol was further validated using varying ratios and mixtures of cells to ensure homogenous staining compared to that of individual cells, and were utilized for flow analyzer and FACS labeling.

This technology focuses on the purification and concentration of cells from low-biomass spacecraft assembly facility samples. Currently, purification and concentration of low-biomass samples plague planetary protection downstream analyses. Having a capability to use flow cytometry to concentrate cells out of low-biomass, high-volume spacecraft/ facility sample extracts will be of extreme benefit to the fields of planetary protection and astrobiology.

Successful research and development of this novel methodology will significantly increase the knowledge base for designing more effective cleaning protocols, and ultimately lead to a more empirical and “true” account of the microbial diversity present on spacecraft surfaces. Refined cleaning and an enhanced ability to resolve microbial diversity may decrease the overall cost of spacecraft assembly and/or provide a means to begin to assess challenging planetary protection missions.

This work was done by James N. Benardini, Myron T. La Duc, and Rochelle Diamond of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NPO-48086

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Purifying, Separating, and Concentrating Cells From a Sample Low in Biomass

(reference NPO-48086) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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This article first appeared in the July, 2012 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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