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

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

“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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