KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (FL), February 6, 2020 – When Northrop Grumman’s 13th commercial resupply services (CRS) mission launches to the International Space Station (ISS), it will carry with it a multitude of research to benefit life on Earth. Among the ISS U.S. National Laboratory-sponsored payloads on this mission are two investigations from leading academic institutions. Although both projects fall within the area of life sciences, the two are studying very different things—one is seeking solutions to a common health ailment and the other aims to improve bioproduction of a commercially important industrial chemical.
Specifically, a research team from the University of Minnesota is examining the mechanisms behind accelerated bone loss from skeletal unloading—which occurs when no weight is put on bones, for example, in bedridden patients. A research team from the University of Alaska is evaluating pathways to enhance the bacterial production of the industrial chemical isobutene, a key precursor for many products such as plastics and rubber.
Analyzing Bone Loss in Microgravity
The University of Minnesota research team is leveraging microgravity conditions on the ISS to better understand the response of bone cells to varying levels of gravitational force. Such information is critical in developing therapies to treat Earthbound patients with bone loss resulting from skeletal unloading, such as bedridden patients, the elderly, and patients with neurodegenerative disease.
In this investigation, the team will culture osteoblasts (a type of cell involved in bone formation) in microgravity, where bone loss is accelerated in the absence of countermeasures. The researchers will compare genomic changes in spaceflight samples and normal gravity samples. Their hope is to identify mechanisms affected by skeletal unloading to help develop more effective strategies to prevent bone loss back on Earth.
The team has also developed a magnetic levitation system for use in ground-based research to create a weightless environment for cells that simulates microgravity. Such a system would allow researchers to conduct additional experiments on Earth to study bone loss in reduced gravity and test potential therapies. In addition to comparing spaceflight samples and ground controls, the team will also compare osteoblasts cultured on the ISS with those cultured in their ground-based magnetic levitation system. The aim is to determine how well the system’s simulated microgravity mimics true microgravity conditions.
Examining Bacterial Bioproduction
The University of Alaska research team is utilizing the ISS to examine genetically engineered Escherichia coli bacteria that produce isobutene—a commercially useful chemical intermediate used in numerous industrial applications that has an estimated market value of more than $15 billion per year. E. coli, a type of bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract of animals and in their waste, can produce isobutene through certain metabolic processes; however, these processes are inefficient.
Because metabolic activity is altered in microgravity, the research team will evaluate whether genetically engineered E. coli onboard the ISS will more efficiently produce isobutene. The team hopes to identify competing pathways that could be further genetically modified to increase production.
More than 10 million tons of isobutene are produced annually, primarily through energy-intensive petrochemical processes that contribute to environmental pollution. Economically viable bioproduction of isobutene from renewable resources such as manure would reduce the energy needed for production, decrease economic dependence on oil, and ultimately support environmental sustainability.
“These experiments are exciting additions to the portfolio of science on the ISS National Lab,” said ISS Interim Chief Scientist Dr. Michael Roberts. “They not only demonstrate the diversity of science applications in space but also add to a tremendous year of research on the orbiting laboratory.”
To learn about all the ISS National Lab investigations launching on Northrup Grumman’s 13th commercial resupply services mission, please visit our Mission Overview.
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About the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory:
In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the ISS as the nation’s newest national laboratory to optimize its use for improving quality of life on Earth, promoting collaboration among diverse users, and advancing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. This unique laboratory environment is available for use by non-NASA U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The ISS National Lab manages access to the permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space.
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