Spotlight | BioServe Space Technologies

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SAN FRANCISCO — For more than 20 years, BioServe Space Technologies specialized in preparing life sciences research for space shuttle flights. “We learned very well how to utilize that vehicle and its crew to the best benefit,” said Center Director Louis Stodieck. 

With the retirement of the space shuttle and emergence of an array of international launch vehicles, BioServe officials are devising new techniques to continue space-based life sciences research. “We make adjustments to reflect these new vehicles and every vehicle is a little bit different,” Stodieck said. 

During the last two years, BioServe has sent microgravity experiments to the international space station on the Japanese H-2 Transfer Vehicle 3, Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Dragon cargo capsule and Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Cygnus spacecraft. Many additional experiments, including three projects with the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, are scheduled to travel to the space station later this year on future SpaceX cargo flights.

On April 20, a SpaceX Dragon delivered to the space station a NASA Ames experiment, known as Micro-7, designed to investigate how spaceflight damages the DNA of a type of cell commonly found in human connective tissue and the ability of that cell to repair the damage.

“There is evidence that microgravity and radiation combined are worse in the body than either one alone,” said Jeffrey Smith, NASA Ames project manager for space biology. “Better understanding DNA damage and repair mechanisms could help us go farther and spend longer in space and stay healthier.”


BioServe Space Technologies at a glance

Top Official: Louis Stodieck, center director

Established: 1987

Organizational Structure: Center within the Aerospace Engineering and Sciences Department, University of Colorado at Boulder

Mission: To conduct microgravity life science research and design and develop spaceflight hardware to support that research.


Similarly, BioServe is collaborating with NASA Ames on an experiment to study how spaceflight affects the ability of bacteria to infect living organisms. Previous studies have shown that the salmonella bacteria become much more virulent in microgravity and that human immune response is weakened during spaceflight. Those findings were drawn from separate studies. 

The NASA Ames-managed study, known as Micro-5, seeks to investigate what happens when the bacteria and host organism meet in microgravity. That experiment is scheduled to fly on the fifth SpaceX cargo mission to the space station, slated for November. 

The third NASA Ames-BioServe collaboration, known as Micro-6, involves an experiment to study microgravity’s impact on yeast and the effectiveness of antimicrobial agents. “The goal is to understand whether the antimicrobial agents used on Earth to treat cells attacked by fungus would be as effective in protecting us in space,” Smith said. 

BioServe plans to supply all the ground equipment and flight hardware for Micro-5, Micro-6 and Micro-7. For Micro-7, BioServe is providing the cell culture system, which fits inside BioServe’s Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, a mid-deck locker that offers power, experiment manipulation capabilities, temperature control and downlink of data and video. BioServe also is building the glass, barrel-shaped containers used to house the Micro-6 experiment and control its temperature. Each container holds eight BioServe Fluid Processing Apparatuses, which are shaped like test tubes and designed to mix fluids in microgravity. 

Micro-5 requires more complex equipment because the roundworms being studied need to be kept in a state of suspended animation before the experiment begins and the salmonella cultures need to be grown and diluted. The centerpiece of the Micro-5 payload is a scanning high-definition camera designed to observe worms subjected to different experimental treatments to assess the virulence of the salmonella. Video clips from that camera will be stored in BioServe’s Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus and downlinked for analysis on the ground, Stodieck said.

In addition to providing hardware, BioServe works with researchers to help them design experiments, plan operations, conduct laboratory tests, compile required documents, prepare safety plans, coordinate work with ground laboratories, integrate experiments on the spacecraft and conduct payload verification testing. 

“Hardware is almost the simplest thing we provide,” Stodieck said. “It is our experience and expertise that can translate a complex scientific investigation into a successful flight experiment.” 

BioServe also is working with Techshot Inc. of Greenville, Indiana, on a NASA-funded project to study changes in bone mineral density. Techshot developed a bone densitometer, which the company is preparing to use on the space station to gauge the impact of various therapies designed to decrease the significant bone loss animals and humans experience during spaceflight. 

“BioServe helped us understand the conditions that are ideal for taking bone scan measurements on the rodents,” said John Vellinger, Techshot co-founder and chief operating officer. 

NASA established BioServe in 1987 as one of the space agency’s Centers for the Commercial time, BioServe was a joint venture of the Aerospace Engineering and Sciences Department of the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Kansas State University. Its goal was to encourage commercial industry to conduct space-based life sciences investigations. Because so little life sciences research had been performed in microgravity, BioServe officials initially conducted many of their own experiments and published the results to encourage private industry to take part. 

NASA provided a majority of BioServe’s funding until 2006. Since then, BioServe has supported its operations and the salaries of approximately 12 full-time employees through grants it receives for its own research and money it earns supporting life sciences research conducted by other organizations, including NASA. Some of that work comes through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, the organization charged with managing the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory. BioServe also employs University of Colorado students as research assistants with funding drawn from grants, cooperative agreements and sponsored project agreements. 

More than 25 years after BioServe was founded, the organization retains its focus on studying “living, breathing things, from microbiology to small organisms through animals and plant research,” Stodieck said. Since those experiments are now sent to the space station on unmanned rockets, BioServe officials pay careful attention to preparing experiments for longer missions.

“With the shuttle if you had a relatively short-duration experiment, lasting hours or days, you go up and down on the same flight,” Stodieck said. “If you are going up on one vehicle and coming back on another, you have considerably longer durations so you have to think a lot more about how you stabilize experiments for return and analysis on the ground.”

That often means keeping samples refrigerated during the trip back to Earth. For example, rodents sent aloft on shuttle could be brought home alive for study because researchers had access to the animals within two to three hours of the spacecraft’s landing. If researchers have to wait 48 hours to retrieve living samples from unmanned rockets, however, the animals or organisms will begin readapting to Earth’s gravity, Stodieck said. 

“We are all hoping that commercial crew vehicles will be able to bring back living samples in the not too distant future,” Stodieck said.