BioServe Space Technologies, a research center within the aerospace engineering department at CU Boulder, is set to transport three biological experiments to the International Space Station (ISS) with a SpaceX cargo resupply mission on Sept. 19.
The center will be sending three experiment payloads to the ISS, where the astronauts at the station will carry out the experiments. Two of the payloads are being developed independently at CU, while the third comes directly from NASA, with extensive support from BioServe.
“The center was formed on a grant from NASA in 1987,” said the director of BioServe, Dr. Louis Stodieck. “At the time, NASA was interested in supporting commercial development of space, the idea being to provide access to the unique attributes of the spaceflight environment.”
BioServe makes it possible for biological researchers to carry out experiments in that environment. “We support nontraditional aerospace companies,” Stodieck continued. “We do life sciences, so our emphasis is on pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and agricultural companies — people that would not normally think about what they might do in space, but potentially would be interested in looking at that environment as a way of developing new products.”
In collaboration with outside biological researchers, the center will be sending two yeast-based experiments on the SpaceX Dragon, a partially reusable unmanned spacecraft. The experiments are named “Micro 8” and “Drug Metabolism.”
Micro 8, an experiment conducted by Montana St. University, aims to examine the pathogenic behavior of a yeast called Candida albicans in microgravity.
“There is a lot of interest in taking pathogens into the spaceflight environment because they seem to grow better and become more virulent,” Stodieck said. “The obvious question is, why would that be?”
The Drug Metabolism experiment, run by researchers with the Department of Veteran Affairs, will study how yeast metabolize certain drugs in spaceflight.
“The type of yeast used in this experiment is the same type you would use in making bread or beer. It is what is called a model organism, meaning that it is very well understood,” Stodieck said. That familiarity makes it easier to trace the metabolic pathways the organism uses; the yeast will be challenged with drugs, and researchers will be able to track how the yeast metabolize these drugs in a microgravity environment. This is advantageous to understanding drug metabolism because on Earth, according to Stodieck, “the yeast would settle into the culture medium it is growing in, changing the yeast’s environment quite a bit. In microgravity, they’ll stay stationary, making it much more similar to the environment inside your body.”
Essentially, it will be a more controlled environment and will allow researchers to observe metabolic pathways with the influence of less external stimuli.
Understanding how drugs are metabolized in this environment could help researchers understand why some patients are more, or less, susceptible to a drug.
The third experiment, which comes directly from NASA, involves mice that have had what Stodieck calls a “muscle sparing gene,” or a gene responsible for degrading unused muscle, removed from their genome. The experiment hopes to determine whether the removal of this gene will decrease muscle and bone atrophy suffered by organisms exposed to microgravity environments.
“Even if astronauts exercise vigorously in space, they will return to earth with the skeletal system of someone much, much older,” Stodieck said.
The experiment is based on the hypothesis that mice with this gene removed will suffer much less atrophy than those who still have it.
Students can work to develop these experiment payloads for BioServe.
“We have students that are involved in helping to design and develop hardware, then put all the systems together for flight preparation,” Stodieck said.
Fabrication of parts and assembly is done primarily in the center’s machine shop, located in the Engineering Building.
“I’m a software guy, so with BioServe I’ve been learning a lot about how to make very reliable software that meets NASA’s expectations for safety and reliability,” said Jonathan Anthony, a 23-year-old graduate student studying bioastronautics and aerospace engineering.
Anthony is currently working with other students on a prototype of the Space Automated Bio-product Lab, or SABL, an experiment facility for BioServe. SABL is scheduled to be installed on the ISS in June of next year, replacing the experiment facility that will house the projects to be sent on Sept. 19.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Matt Vail at email@example.com.