Published: Sept. 26, 2002

Note: Photo scan is CU doctoral student Jim Clawson with Bioserve plant chamber.

Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder will be flying several biomedical and agricultural experiments on NASA's space shuttle Atlantis slated for launch Oct. 2, some of which will be transferred to the International Space Station.

The CU-Boulder faculty and students involved are affiliated with BioServe Space Technologies, headquartered in the College of Engineering and Applied Science and one of several NASA centers for Space Commercialization with active space flight programs. The experiments, which will take place in sophisticated hardware and devices designed and built by BioServe engineers and students, are being undertaken in cooperation with research groups in both the public and private sectors.

Three cell biology experiments involve culturing human kidney cells, an infectious agent (salmonella), and yeast, said BioServe Director Louis Stodieck of the aerospace engineering sciences department. While culturing such cells on Earth results in the normally heavier kidney cells settling to the bottom of the medium and growing in two-dimensional sheets, culturing them in the suspended state of microgravity causes their behavior to mimic normal, functioning kidney cells.

Previous BioServe flights have documented changes in kidney cells and how the genes are expressed to produce particular proteins, said Stodieck. "Now we want to learn more about what is happening at the molecular level to control the behavior of the cells in space and on the ground. 

"Ultimately we want to create 3-D models of tissues for testing new drugs that may be able to block infections," he said. "Studying how salmonella and yeast respond to microgravity will further our knowledge of molecular responses in space."

Stodieck, chief scientist on the project for BioServe, is working with three investigators from Tulane Medical University and the Louisiana Veterans Research and Education Corp. A third partner is StelSys LLC in Baltimore, which licenses various cell culturing technologies from NASA and is keenly interested in tissue models for drug testing.

The results of the cell culturing experiments in space also may be of help in designing improved bioreactor systems on Earth that can culture large volumes of diverse cell types for pharmaceutical and medical applications, said Stodieck.

All of the cell experiments will be conducted in a device developed by BioServe known as the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus, or CGBA, he said. While the cell experiments will be returned to Earth at the end of the nine-day shuttle mission, the CGBA will be delivered to the International Space Station during the mission to act as a refrigerator for a second set of experiments involving BioServe. 

The other experiments involve plants grown in a special chamber known as the Plant Growth Bioprocessing Apparatus, also designed and built by BioServe and which will be delivered to the space station by Atlantis for a 50-day stay. The focus is on better understanding the role of gravity on lignin - a plant substance that affects the strength of plant stalks and stems -- and identify the genes involved, he said.

The gravity-free environment of the space station should help the researchers identify the genetic control mechanism involved in lignin metabolism, said Stodieck.

"It is somewhat analogous to bone loss by astronauts in space," he said. "Just as the human body adjusts in microgravity and alters the biochemical processes that produce bone mass, previous experiments by BioServe with plants in space have shown they decrease lignin production since they apparently do not need as much structural support in space. We are trying to get answers at the molecular level of just how plants respond to gravity."

Identifying the genetic control mechanism involved in lignin metabolism has broad applications in the timber and pharmaceutical industries, he said. BioServe is part of a consortium collaborating on the plant experiments on the space station that also involves the NASA-Ames Research Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory, Weyerhaeuser and UPM-Kymmene of Finland.

The consortium is flying a model plant species, Arabidopsis thaliana, a member of the mustard family. The researchers plan to germinate and grow one batch of 30 plants, which takes 25 days to mature. It will then be harvested by NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson.

Whitson will plant and tend a second crop of 30 Bioserve plants for the last 25 days of the space station stay. In 2003, the group plans to fly crops of loblolly pine seedlings - which BioServe already has flown on space shuttles -- on the space station, he said.

Since 1991, BioServe has flown a variety of payloads on 21 missions, including 17 NASA space shuttle flights, two missions on the Russian Space Station, Mir, and two missions on the International Space Station. BioServe is a joint center of CU-Boulder, Kansas State University and industrial affiliates.