In the study, scientists revealed that Crew members aboard the International Space Station will begin conducting research soon to improve the way we grow crystals on Earth. The information gained from the experiments could speed up the process for drug development, benefiting humans around the world.
Researchers know that crystals grown in space often contain fewer imperfections than those grown on Earth, but the reasoning behind that phenomenon isn’t crystal clear. A widely accepted theory in the crystallography community is that the crystals are of higher quality because they grow slower in microgravity due to a lack of buoyancy-induced convection.
The only way these protein molecules move in microgravity is by random diffusion, a process that is much slower than movement on Earth. Proteins serve an important role within the human body. Without them, the body wouldn’t be able to regulate, repair or protect itself. Many proteins are too small to be studied even under a microscope, and must be crystallized to determine their 3-D structures.
Drug developers can use the structure to develop a specific drug to interact with the protein, a process called structure-based drug design. Another less-explored theory is that a higher level of purification can be achieved in microgravity. A pure crystal may contain thousands of copies of a single protein.
Once crystals are returned to Earth and exposed to an X-Ray beam, the X-ray diffraction pattern can be used to mathematically map a protein’s structure. The theory states that in microgravity, a dimer, or two proteins stuck together, will move much slower than a monomer, or a single protein, giving aggregates less opportunity to incorporate into the crystal.
The LMM Biophysics 1 investigation will put these two theories to the test, to try to understand the reason(s) microgravity-grown crystals are often of superior quality and size compared to their Earth-grown counterparts. Improved X-ray diffraction data results in a more precise protein structure and thereby enhancing our understanding of the protein’s biological function and future drug discovery.
Crystal Types – LMM Biophysics 3
As LMM Biophysics 1 studies why space-grown crystals are of higher quality than Earth-grown crystals, LMM Biophysics 3 will look at which crystals may benefit from crystallization in space. Research has found that only some proteins crystallized in space benefit from microgravity growth. Those are the ones that won’t benefit from microgravity.
In further study, they understood different proteins crystallize in microgravity will give researchers a deeper view into how these proteins function, and help to determine which crystals should be transported to the space station for growth. These crystals could be used in drug development and disease research around the world.