Using the ISS: Once Again NASA Has Been Left in the Dust

By Keith Cowing
February 3, 2011
Filed under
Using the ISS: Once Again NASA Has Been Left in the Dust

Experiment reaches biology milestone with hard X-ray laser, ASU

“This milestone research reported in Nature opens a new avenue for solving protein structures and will have a huge impact in a lot of areas, including development of clean energy and the medical field,” she said. “The determination of the protein structure will lead to the development of new drugs against cancer and infectious diseases, by manufacturing drugs that fit into the catalytic center of the proteins like a perfect key in a lock.”

Laboratory Giant virus, tiny protein crystals show X-ray laser’s power and potential, SLAC

“I attended several meetings this summer where this work was presented and I was extraordinarily excited by it,” Michael Wiener of the University of Virginia, who was not involved in the research, said of the results. He leads one of nine institutes set up by the National Institutes of Health to decipher the structures of membrane proteins. “Preparation of these nanocrystals is likely to be very, very much easier than the larger crystals used to date,” Wiener said, leaving scientists more time and money to find out how these important biomolecules work.”

The International Space Station Enters the New Year with a New Era of Utilization

“Microgravity allows for larger and more perfect biological macromolecular crystal growth, due to the lack of sedimentation, buoyancy, thermal convection, etc. The resulting crystal allows a more exact determination of molecular structures, needed for therapeutic drug design.”

Keith’s note: For nearly 20 years one of the prime scientific uses that NASA has wanted to put the ISS to was the production of large, ultra-pure protein crystals – a staple of every chart or paper NASA has produced to justify the scientific uses and potential of the ISS. Until now, using existing technology and X-ray diffraction to determine the structure of large biological molecules was facilitated by large, ultra-pure crystals. Alas, such large, such perfect crystals are rather hard to create – and use – on Earth in the presence of a strong gravitational field. But with some work, they can be produced in the microgravity available in space. When returned to Earth, these space-grown crystals have aided in the elucidation of the structure some large biological molecules and some potential therapeutic applications. But it takes many years for things to get from concept to application the way NASA does things.

However, with the research results presented in these two papers, it would seem that structural information for biological molecules can now be obtained from vanishingly small biological samples – so called “nanocrystals” using a hard X-ray laser – on Earth – no space station required.

While the potential for using space-grown crystals was indeed there, NASA has always been slow to bring such novel ideas to fruition. And it was never cheap. Indeed, in the 1980s, when it flew large biotech payloads on the shuttle such as CFES (Continuous Flow Electrophoresis System), Earth-based technology surged ahead and surpassed the approach these devices sought to demonstrate, thus rendering them obsolete before their potential could be exploited. It would seem that NASA has been caught in a similar position once again.

If only NASA could find a way to get things from idea – to hardware – to orbit – and back faster and cheaper, the ISS might have played more of a role in this field of protein crystallography. That is not to say that there is nothing you can do on the ISS. Quite the contrary (see the NASA paper listed above). Rather, the question is whether NASA can change its ways and open up this unique facility to outside entities and new ways of thinking — or if they will simply paint it a different color, get a new logo, and proclaim it to be a “National Laboratory” – all while adding a new layer of bureaucracy atop existing high costs and piles of paperwork.

Indications thus far would point to more of the same from NASA.

NASA’s Slow Motion Reluctance To Truly Open Up The ISS, earlier post (with additional links)

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.