Posted: Monday, June 4, 2018
Early last week, NanoRacks worked with International Space Station crew member Ricky Arnold to complete the first phase of the Barrios Protein Crystal Growth (Barrios PCG) experiment via NanoRacks’ third generation microscope. The Barrios PCG experiment is a joint project between Barrios Technology and NanoRacks.
The Barrios PCG investigation, in the first of three phases, tested the feasibility of the use of 96-well crystallization plates on orbit, as well as the protein crystal growth yielded from these plates. The investigation uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) microplates, and specifically tested the ability to pipette small amounts of fluids (about 10 microliters) into the plate in microgravity.
The pipetting and mixing process was recorded by the crew for analysis by the principle investigator.
This first phase involved mixing a blue dye with four solutions of varying viscosities. Ricky Arnold also tested two different methods of mixing the solutions after they were already placed in the wells. Pipetting, while a common technique in protein crystal labs on the ground, is still a new process in microgravity.
“Barrios PCG is a major step in the advancement of microgravity protein crystal growth,” says NanoRacks’ Chief Scientist Dr. Carl Carruthers. “The capability to observe and optimize growth conditions without returning the samples to researchers on the ground first, creates a notable new research opportunity on the Space Station.”
Typically, protein samples are flown to the Space Station, provided time to crystallize in microgravity and then returned to the researcher on the ground. The crystals are then analyzed and, if needed, re-flown with new optimized growth conditions. This investigation is unique as the analysis and optimization is happening on-orbit, in real time.
Barrios President Robbie McAfoos states: “Barrios is excited to add the Barrios PCG experiment to our commercial space program, and work with NanoRacks as our Barrios PCG partner. We are very proud to have the opportunity to fundamentally change the way microgravity protein crystals are developed and processed on-orbit, laying the groundwork for a more cost effective research path for Space Station customers.”
Phase II and III of the PCG investigation will offer a similar process. Phase II will build upon Phase I and use a standard protein that crystallizes easily and Phase III will progress to using proteins with unknown microgravity crystal growth results. Both additional phases will involve a crew member utilizing a microscope to analyze crystals while on the Space Station. Once the researchers analyze the results, they will provide additional instructions of which ratios of reagents to use for optimization, and the crew will fill a new plate with those conditions and start the process again.
Barrios and NanoRacks are currently on contract to launch and operate Phase II of the Barrios PCG investigation, which has been handed over for flight on the upcoming SpaceX-15 flight, targeting a launch this summer.
Barrios PCG is the first commercial microgravity experiment for Barrios, and NanoRacks is pleased to help facilitate this exciting program.
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