For more than 30 years, scientists have used microgravity—onboard the Russian Space Station Mir, the Space Shuttle, and the ISS—to improve molecular crystal growth research. To scientists, crystals are solid materials with atoms arranged in a rigid geometrical structure. Crystals grown in microgravity are often larger and have a more rigid or ordered structure than those grown on Earth. The enhanced quality of microgravity-grown crystals from space leads to better images of the structures back on Earth. Scientists hypothesize that these observed benefits are the result of a slower, more uniform movement of molecules into a crystalline lattice in microgravity.
Crystal growth research in space has the potential to vastly improve life on Earth through numerous applications. Crystallization of organic molecules can lead to improvements in drug development, formulation, manufacturing, and storage. It can also help improve agriculture through better design of solutions that protect crops and enhance growth. Inorganic molecular crystallization can lead to advances in metal manufacturing and in electronics such as computers and smart phones. It can also help improve radiation detection capabilities for medical imaging and security devices.
The space station provides a valuable platform for molecular crystal growth, and several companies are already taking advantage of the microgravity environment onboard the ISS National Lab to advance their research and development (R&D). To enhance the commercialization potential of a platform in low Earth orbit for crystallization research, CASIS is committed to establishing an ISS National Lab Microgravity Molecular Crystal Growth (MMCG) Program.
The MMCG Program aims to make it easier and more economical to utilize the ISS National Lab for crystallization research and is specifically designed to meet the needs of commercial upstream R&D. The program provides streamlined access to the ISS National Lab through dedicated launches, repeat flight opportunities, and cost-effective set pricing.
Through expanded use and validation of commercial-off-the-shelf hardware and access to vetted service providers with expertise in microgravity investigation design, the program aims to ease the transition from ground-based crystallography to spaceflight and minimize risk while increasing the probability of success. The goal is to provide a rapid return of samples to the research pathway by flying and returning samples within three months from the time of molecule selection.
To help investigators identify optimal molecules that could benefit from growth in microgravity, CASIS has developed criteria for informed molecule selection. These criteria are based on past spaceflight R&D experience and in-depth feedback gained from a CASIS technical interface meeting of protein crystallography experts and experienced hardware developers.
As part of the MMCG Program, CASIS is working toward establishing multi-year, multi-flight collaborations with commercial entities, other government agencies, and research foundations, and has already begun negotiating several such collaborations.
“Scientists have historically used microgravity to improve crystallization techniques toward advances in drug development and manufacturing,” said Marc Giulianotti, CASIS senior associate program scientist. “We are excited to continue to advance the understanding of these improvements and facilitate increased access to the ISS National Lab through our MMCG Program.”
For more information on the MMCG Program, view the Microgravity Molecular Crystal Growth program overview.