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WriterSimpal Kumar Suman

Biotechnologist,  Patna (Bihar), India

The term Space Biotechnology may be new for you and not older. The use of space biotechnology is a recruited new branch in which all the work related to biotechnology is done in space, hence it is called space technology. In simple language, the life science program in space using engineering tools and techniques to make bio-products and services for human beings.  Do you know Biotechnology research work happening on Earth is being affected by the gravitational force of the Earth?  Yes, the interesting thing is that research work and animal existence are happening in a 1g (g= 9.8ms -2 ) environment.  Gravitational acceleration decreases when it goes above (altitude) the Earth’s surface.  That is, the attraction potential of the earth decreases when it goes above the surface of the earth. In fact, Gravity goes up to about zero in space. Loosely it is called zero gravity but precisely also called microgravity by scientists. This microgravity or zero gravity providing the basis of space biotechnology.  

Microgravity :The basis of Space Biotechnology

Space providing us an advanced environment for biotech research and development. Microgravity and cosmic rays are proving to be important in the research and development work of space biotechnology.  But the main role is that of microgravity, which is the base subject of space. According to past and current research work, it seems that the use of the microgravity environment is probably based on four major reasons in space biotechnology.

  • Microgravity Protein Crystallization

  • Mammalian cell and tissue culture.

  • Basic and advanced research about life in space

  • Human civilization establishment  in space

Protein Crystal Development:

With the effect of microgravity, it is possible to build a high level and large size of protein crystals which is not possible on Earth’s gravity.  Earth’s  1g  gravity impedes the formation of a 3D crystal structure of the protein, causing unwanted crystal defects.  Due to this, sometimes, in X-ray crystallography, the location of the atom in the molecular structure of the protein is not accurately detected, even the position of the active hydrogen atom is not known.  In almost all organisms, biochemical actions take place in the watery environment of the cell.
Cells contain 65% to 75% water and many functions take place in the cytoplasm.  Protein formation and breakdown occurs in the cellular environment(cytoplasm).  For the development and discovery of targeted drugs, the  3D structure of a protein is necessary. Structure to be determined may be viral toxic proteins, bacterial toxins or proteins or human proteins.  It is necessary to know the protein crystal structure because it is easy to create and discover new drugs through them. The position and structure of any protein crystal atom are determined by several techniques of crystallography but two techniques play an important role in the development of medicine.  The first  X-ray crystallography and second NMR spectroscopy. Both are complimentary for small protein structure determination. The first to find out the 3D structure of protein crystals and the position of atoms with the help of the X-ray crystallography technique. But it is also necessary to know the positioning of the hydrogen atom in the protein crystal under consideration. In the X-ray crystallography technique, in some cases, flexible regions and Hydrogen atoms are not observed. This is the technical issue of crystallography technique and other problem arises during protein crystallization. The conversion of protein solution (liquid form)  into crystal(solid form), earth’s gravity(1g=9.8ms-2 ) causes crystal defects which give us inaccurate information.  Both problems can be short out by using neutron diffraction crystallography in space microgravity. Microgravity resolves crystal defects and the formation of large-sized crystal and neutron diffraction crystallography resolves missing or unobserved hydrogen atom in the crystal. Microgravity Protein Crystallization properly by the neutron diffraction crystallography under the influence of microgravity. Because neutron diffraction crystallography requires large size protein crystal and this can be achieved by crystallization under microgravity.   

So by crystallizing the toxic proteins of pathogenic micro-organism into space, crystallography techniques can know the 3D structure and form the basis of drug discovery in the field of medicine.  From this, we can also know how the drug works. Currently, the role of NASA Space Agency (USA) in the research and development of space Biotechnology is commendable. All the research work of space Biotechnology takes place in space. In the year 1998, NASA placed its first aircraft in the lower orbit of the Earth.  This vehicle was often set up for the living and research of astronauts.  This vehicle is the world’s largest space station, which is now called the International Space Station. This station is divided into several units which are doing research in many fields of science and technology. One of them is also in the field of biotechnology.  Due to the microgravity area at this international station, work is being done on cell culture.  Only special types of bioreactors for cell culture are designed in the space station.  So that easily the effect of gravity can be studied in the development of cells and changes in gene expression.

Commercialization  of space biotechnology:

NASA is now inviting global biotechnology companies to produce their space biotechnology research as well as commercial production. Currently, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization(BIO) is the world’s largest biotechnology trade association considered for successful innovation in the fields of agro-industrial medicine and environmental biotechnology, emphasizing the availability of fuel medicine and food to overcome the global problems of the earth.
Space Biotechnology is another tomorrow’s solution to solve the problems of the Earthlings.  In future, it may be that the arable land on the earth becomes small and the population has to resort to space for food and other needs. Making other planets life-worthy with space-based competitive technology, creating an arable environment, manufacturing high-level medical-related medicines in space can answer our future challenges. However, no space bioproduct has been made commercially yet.  Establishing human civilization in space can be considered as the goal of the future.  The human can use his imagination and knowledge to make his home anywhere in universe.  Latitude and incredible work are possible through science and technology which will take space biotechnology far ahead in the future.


Protein crystal growth in microgravity

Ng JD, Baird JK, Coates L, Garcia-Ruiz JM, Hodge TA, Huang S. Large-volume protein crystal growth for neutron macromolecular crystallography. Acta Crystallogr F Struct Biol Commun. 2015;71(Pt 4):358–370. doi:10.1107/S2053230X15005348

Smyth MS, Martin JH. x ray crystallography. Mol Pathol. 2000;53(1):8–14. doi:10.1136/mp.53.1.8