Nav: Home

Crystallization plate provides clues on protein structure aboard historic space mission

September 01, 2016

ITHACA, N.Y. - A new crystallization plate, developed and tested at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source, or CHESS, hitched a ride to outer space and is helping a major drugmaker learn about protein structure.

The In-Situ-1 crystallization plate - developed by Robert Thorne, professor of physics at Cornell University, and the company he founded, MiTeGen, LLC - was used in experiments for Eli Lilly onboard the historic SpaceX CRS 8 mission earlier this year.

"It was personally exciting to me," Thorne said, "because the U.S. space program of the 1960s and 1970s was one of the reasons I became a scientist."

For the last 20 or so years, Thorne has been working on problems related to determining the structure of biomolecules. To tackle these problems, he and his group have used X-ray diffraction to understand the make-up of the crystals they've produced. Much of the X-ray work has taken place at CHESS.

With a world-class X-ray facility on campus, doing the crystallography hasn't been a problem. The challenge, however, for the Thorne group and for X-ray crystallographers worldwide is actually growing high-quality crystals. Moreover, the plastic microplates in which the crystals are grown have made it very difficult to assess crystal quality, Thorne said.

"It's the quality of their X-ray diffraction that ultimately determines whether you've got the crystals you need," he said. "But you couldn't do X-ray diffraction on crystals in these plates, because the plastic of the plate produced more scattering than the crystals did."

Thorne has overcome that problem - again with a big assist from CHESS. Motivated by initial work from his Cornell group, MiTeGen developed the In-Situ-1, which allows X-rays to pass through without diffraction, thanks to ultra-thin yet vapor-impermeable films of UV and X-ray transparent plastic.

And due to a patent-pending liquid-retention ledge - similar to the top of a bottle of hot sauce - and vapor microchannels, the crystal-producing fluids stay in place, even if the plate gets turned upside down or sideways, bumped or dropped.

"It will work with everything," said Thorne. "People don't have to buy $100,000 worth of equipment to work with microfluidics. In these simple, inexpensive plates, they can do hanging drops and sitting drops, they can hold the plate vertically for X-ray work, and they can grow their crystals and then ship it by conventional courier to the synchrotron.

"It's a killer product," he said, "but as with all products, it takes time to catch on."

The In-Situ-1 got a boost - literally and figuratively - this past spring aboard the SpaceX rocket. According to Thorne, Eli Lilly regularly sends crystallization experiments to the International Space Station, and contacted MiTeGen to see if they could use the plate. The consortium tested it prior to the rocket launch and decided to send it into space.

Thorne's devices ended up being sent on a history-making flight: The SpaceX CRS 8 was the first to land its first-stage rocket on a barge in the middle of the ocean. And although details aren't available, a MiTeGen spokesperson said results from Eli Lilly's experiments aboard the ISS U.S. National Laboratory were "positive."

Thorne said that for the development of new tools and methods for crystal growth and crystallography, CHESS has been invaluable.

"It's a great place to go and mess around, if you're trying to develop new technologies or new scientific approaches," he said. "CHESS is more flexible than comparable X-ray sources in the kinds of experiments they'll let you do, and their technical staff provides great support. It's hard to find a better place.

"It's a tremendous resource for New York, as well as Pennsylvania and the Northeast," he said. "More companies should take advantage of it."

CHESS, supported by grants from the Division of Materials Research of the National Science Foundation, is planning its next X-ray run from Oct. 26 through Dec. 13. The facility is in the middle of CHESS-U, a planned upgrade that will extend CHESS's capacity for cutting-edge, innovative science and technology.
-end-


Cornell University

Related International Space Station Articles:

Experiment aboard space station studies 'space weather'
To study conditions in the ionosphere, Cornell University research engineer Steven Powell and others in the College of Engineering have developed the FOTON (Fast Orbital TEC for Orbit and Navigation) GPS receiver.
Earth science on the Space Station continues to grow
Two new Earth science instruments are scheduled to make their way to the station Feb.
For space station astronauts, spinal muscles shrink after months in space
While astronauts on long space missions do not experience a change in spinal disc height, the muscles supporting the spine weaken, find researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
Swarm of satellites to explore Earth's shield from International Space Station
A swarm of 50 small satellites -- known as cubesats and weighing an average of 2 kg each -- will be launched from the International Space Station in the European-led as QB50 mission to explore the little-understood region above Earth known as the thermosphere.
Pitt researcher's work headed to International Space Station
Rocky S. Tuan, Ph.D., has received a research grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to continue his work on a 3-D microphysiological system to be conducted on board the International Space Station to evaluate the accelerated aging and degeneration process of bones that occurs in space.
Antarctic fungi survive Martian conditions on the International Space Station
European scientists have gathered tiny fungi that take shelter in Antarctic rocks and sent them to the International Space Station.
How mold on space station flowers is helping get us to Mars
When Scott Kelly tweeted a picture of moldy leaves on the current crop of zinnia flowers aboard the International Space Station, it could have looked like the science was doomed.
Getting into the flow on the International Space Station
The Packed Bed Reactor Experiment (PBRE) is a basic science investigation designed to fill in the missing information as to how two-phase mixtures flow through porous media in microgravity.
Waterloo to lead new experiment aboard International Space Station
A spacecraft carrying supplies for a new physiology experiment led by a University of Waterloo researcher will launch to the International Space Station on Thursday, the Canadian Space Agency announced.
Space station investigation goes with the flow
The investigation's success could help scientists develop countermeasures that will influence the future of human spaceflight on long-duration missions.

Related International Space Station Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...