The Final Frontier: UAB Launches Proteins into Space

By on March 18, 2014
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To improve knowledge of protein structures and to boost new drug developments, UAB plans to crystallize proteins aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The plan is to launch the SpaceX-3 rocket, carrying protein samples all 230 miles or so to the ISS on March 16. Including about 100 proteins, this study aims to not only perpetuate understanding of protein structure, but to also critically compare how well proteins crystallize on Earth and in space. The samples are scheduled to return in August when researchers can begin comparing the space-bound samples to the controls completed by UAB and left on Earth. Also, analysis will proceed as a double-blind experiment, where researchers will not know whether or not a sample stayed on Earth or came from space until analysis is completed.

“Understanding the atomic structure and function of a protein allows scientists to begin development on compounds that can interact with the protein and subsequently regulate its function,” director of UAB’s Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering, Lawrence DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D. said about the aim of the experiment.

Scientists are interested in understanding the three-dimensional structure of proteins because with this knowledge, it is easier to figure out how to produce drugs to combat various diseases. To observe the 3-D structure, proteins must be crystallized. One way to do this is to take a purified protein sample in a solution and extract the water from it. Extracting this water increases protein concentration and forces the proteins to form unit cells that become the crystals. X-ray diffraction can create pictures or maps of the amino acids inside proteins by striking the molecules with x-ray beams. This map can then be used to elucidate medicines via structure-based drug design, a method that has proved beneficial for cancer, diabetes, and HIV treatments.

Protein crystallization in space produces larger and higher quality crystals than on Earth, as past studies have shown. Microgravity in space may be the answer to crystallizing potentially very valuable proteins that have not produced useful crystals before.

The scope and ambition of this project is not limited to academia; DeLucas wished to educate the public about this science and encourage Alabama high school students to participate as well. From 10 different Alabama high schools, students were instructed and led by members of DeLucas’ laboratory and will be able to launch their protein samples on SpaceX-3 as well. When the samples return to Earth, groups of students will then have the opportunity to analyze their samples and enter a competition, where the top three presentations will receive scholarship money for their efforts and involvement.

Sources 

https://www.uab.edu/news/innovation/item/4328-new-study-of-proteins-in-space-could-yield-better-understanding-new-drug-development-in-addition-to-future-scientists

http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/k-4/stories/what-is-microgravity-k4.html#.Ux-9qvldX3Y

http://www.bio.davidson.edu/molecular/MolStudents/spring2003/Kogoy/protein.html

http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/179225main_ISS_Poster_Back.pdf

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