UC Irvine Molecular Biologist Leads NASA Experiment to Grow Protein Crystal In Space

Press Release From: University of California-Irvine
Posted: Thursday, September 7, 2000

protein crystal grown in space Contact: Tom Vasich, (949) 824-6455,


Students Also Participating in First Long-Duration Experiment for International Space Station

Irvine, Calif. -- Led by UC Irvine molecular biologist Alexander McPherson, a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) project to grow protein crystals on the International Space Station takes off tomorrow when the Space Shuttle Atlantis travels to the unique orbiting laboratory.

In addition, as part of a NASA pilot education program, middle and high school students from Alabama, California, Florida and Tennessee gave NASA a helping hand.

Working in university research labs with McPherson and other scientists from NASA's Microgravity Research Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the students prepared about 150 of 500 biological samples engineered to produce protein crystals in the low-gravity environment of space. Many of the participating students from the Southeastern states will have the added thrill of watching the Shuttle launch.

"Having students participate in the first Space Station experiment is a great way to teach them biochemistry and show them how our first permanent outpost in space can be used for research," said McPherson, a UCI professor of molecular biology and biochemistry.

McPherson has been a leader of NASA-sponsored crystallization projects since 1984 and received NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1999. He has published numerous journal articles describing crystals grown on the Space Shuttle and the Russian space station Mir. Recently, McPherson received NASA contracts totaling $14 million to build two new protein crystal growth systems for use on the Space Station.

Just before Friday morning's Shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center, scientists will place the samples in a crystal growth system called an enhanced gaseous nitrogen dewar -- a vacuum-jacketed container, similar to a large thermos bottle, with an absorbent inner liner saturated with liquid nitrogen. The dewar will be placed in the Space Station where crystals will slowly form for several weeks. When the Shuttle returns to the Station in October, the dewar will be brought back to Earth where scientists will retrieve and analyze the crystals to determine the structure of biological molecules.

The process of protein crystallization is an important first step in understanding the structures of these chemical compounds found in all living cells. Information gathered from protein crystals ultimately can be used to design new drugs to treat conditions such as cancer and immune system disorders and to develop agricultural products such as nutritionally enhanced foods.

"Growth and analysis of protein crystals have become lynchpins of biotechnology and modern molecular biology," McPherson said. "Understanding the physical principles of the process and harnessing its potential will be an important focus of research on the International Space Station. Ultimately, what we learn about growing crystals in microgravity will improve the applications of that process in laboratories on Earth."

Protein crystals can be grown on Earth, but gravity introduces defects as they develop. However, in the low-gravity atmosphere of space, scientists can grow larger, higher-quality crystals that can produce more exact images of the proteins.


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