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HWI Crystal Growth Research and the International Space Station


When the SpaceX-3 cargo resupply mission blasted off from Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station on April 18, 2014, an experiment designed at HWI was part of the cargo headed to space.

The HWI experiment made use of the reduced acceleration environment of an orbiting spacecraft (‘weightlessness’) to grow crystals of four different proteins. These proteins are linked to breast cancer, skin cancer, prion disease and oxidative stress, the latter of which is implicated in many forms of cancer and age-related neurological disorders. Some of the resulting crystals were returned to Earth in May, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The remainder was returned in October on a separate mission. All the crystals were retrieved and are now at HWI for further analysis.

This experiment is part of Dr. Edward Snell’s project entitled “Exploiting On-Orbit Crystal Properties for Structural Studies of Medically and Economically Important Targets” and involves a collaboration with the laboratory of Joseph Luft. It is supported by a $300K grant awarded to Dr. Snell by the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). Graduate student Rick Roberts and Research Associate Elizabeth Snell are members of Dr. Snell’s laboratory who also work on the project.

The results of previous experiments performed on crystals grown in orbit have shown that, in a few cases, crystal quality is dramatically improved. The ‘weightlessness’ environment reduces many of the imperfections associated with crystals grown under the gravitational conditions on the Earth’s surface. Crystallographic analyses of the larger and more perfect crystals that can be formed in space are expected to lead to increased knowledge regarding the biological mechanisms associated with the four target proteins. This information will then enable knowledge-based pharmaceutical design.

The International Space Station where the experiments were conducted is a flying laboratory that makes possible new technologies and research breakthroughs limited on earth. It has had continuous human occupation since November 2000 and has been visited by more than 200 people and a variety of international and commercial spacecraft. It will be visited again in early 2016 by more experiments from HWI under a related $750K research proposal awarded to the Snell laboratory by NASA. This proposal, entitled “Growth Rate Dispersion as a Predictive Indicator for Biological Crystal Samples Where Quality Can be Improved with Microgravity Growth”, aims to identify ground-based methods for predicting which experiments could benefit from the limited shelf space on the Space Station and, therefore, improve the effectiveness of similar experiments overall.

Not only is HWI doing international science, it is now doing science out of this world!


Standing, Dr. Edward Snell and Rick Roberts, seated Elizabeth Snell


Liftoff of SpaceX-3
April 18, 2014 - SpaceX rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 3:25 p.m. EDT.  Image Credit: NASA

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