Biotechnology in the space

The question began to be posed more than two years ago: can biotech companies make money in space?

For those not in the know, this is usually followed by “Why would they even want to try?” Those who are already conducting bioresearch in orbit are quick with an answer: because space is great for growing stuff, especially small stuff.

We can, in part, credit findings from a bacteria-growing experiment on a shuttle mission in 2007. Arizona State Univ. researchers found conclusively that critical genes related to growth and stress in bacteria actually expressed themselves in a different way in space, and that the virulence of the bacteria was higher than its Earth-bound brethren.

Why the potency? Without the weight of gravity causing stress and forcing a greater expenditure of energy—paired with a greater available growing area owing to not be pressed against the earth—micro-organisms can develop more quickly, saving valuable time.

This phenomenon helps production of medically valuable proteins like immuno-reactive molecules, hormones, enzymes, and vaccines. Vaccine research benefits from greater virulence. In fact, the low-gravity environment is thought by some scientists to simulate the environment of the human gut as a bacteria passes through.

The growth factor experienced by bactera also extends to crystals. Important to x-ray analysis, crystals structures form much more predictably in space. This includes protein crystals growth, which is why x-ray crystallography has been an important of bioresearch in space for many years.

A team of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will send an army of microorganisms into space this week, to investigate new ways of preventing the formation and spread of biofilms, or clusters of bacteria, that could pose a threat to the health of astronauts. The Micro-2 experiment is scheduled to launch into orbit on May 14 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Shown are professor and project leader Cynthia Collins (left) with graduate student Jasmine Shong making preparations for the launch of Micro-2. Credit: Rensselaer/Collins

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