Researchers send experiments to space to tap zero gravity’s potential


The crystals on the left were grown in microgravity. Those on the right formed on Earth, where gravity makes the process more difficult. (NASA)

Get ready for the rodents in outer space to outnumber the humans. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space is increasingly green-lighting research projects for the International Space Station.

The organization expects that the unique conditions of outer space could lead to research breakthroughs.

“We believe there are scientific projects that people haven’t even thought about taking gravity out of the equation, and if they realize how easy it is and how accessible it is to get to the space station they’d be all over it,” said Greg Johnson, the executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

The organization approved 28 projects in 2013 and expects to launch more this year. In 2011 it began managing the U.S. lab on the International Space Station for NASA.

“There are things we can learn about the planet from 250 miles we frankly just can’t learn from here,” Johnson said. “We can learn about algal blooms in oceans. We can better understand patterns in the atmosphere and how they interface with land masses and water masses.”

In zero gravity, human and animal bones degenerate, opening a door for studying osteoporosis. Prolia, a drug designed to treat postmenopausal osteoporosis, was developed using research on lab rats that were tested on the space shuttle Endeavour in 2001.

One of the current experiments taking place on the International Space Station addresses Huntington’s disease, in which proteins clump up in a patient’s brain. The surface of the proteins mutate, making it hard for researchers to analyze them. Without an accurate depiction of the protein, scientists can’t design a drug to latch onto the surface and serve as a meaningful treatment for Huntington’s disease.

Gwen Owens, a Ph.D candidate at UCLA-Caltech, is studying the Huntington’s disease protein in crystal form. She heard an NPR segment about the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and recalled a researcher’s work using micogravity. Given that crystals grow better in space, she figured it was worth pursuing.

“The real bottleneck is getting the crystals to form,” Owens said. “Once we have the crystals, it’s not that easy, but it’s not that hard.” Owens will get a better understanding of just how valuable zero gravity proves to be when her lab gets results back in September.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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