NASA Funding for Your Basic Cell Research Could Be Orbiting Overhead

The International Space Station now houses a new cell culture unit and fluorescence microscope for cell biology research. Photo credit: NASA

The International Space Station houses a new cell culture unit and fluorescence microscope for cell biology research. Photo credit: NASA

When you next look up at the night sky, know that among the stars and planets there’s a new cell culture unit and fluorescence microscope orbiting above you. There could also be a research funding opportunity for your lab up there. To expand its biology research on the International Space Station and to learn more about how cells and organisms are affected by the zero gravity environment, NASA’s Space Biology program is spreading the word that they want to fund basic research projects that broadly relate to spaceflight.

NASA’s Space Biology program solicits research proposals at least once a year. In the most recent cycle in 2014, 26 proposals were selected by peer-review with a total value of $12,612,260, with a remarkable 28% payline. The next call for proposals will likely be in late spring or early fall of 2015. Investigators can register here to be alerted about Space Biology Solicitations.

“Space biology is the basic research arm of NASA,” explained Amir Zeituni, Senior Scientist at NASA Research and Education Support Services. He continued, “We’re interested in basic fundamental questions that help us understand how an organism adapts to and responds to spaceflight. By spaceflight, I mean microgravity, radiation, those kinds of things. We found out over the 50 years of doing life science research (in space) that the body does respond differently, and that causes severe issues for the astronauts. We need to drill down to the molecular and physiological mechanisms to see and understand how we can mitigate these concerns and help us explore space.”

“We have a variety of different kinds of hardware to do everything from cell and molecular biology to rodent physiology and space biology in large plants,” said David Tomko, Space Biology Program Scientist at the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research Division of NASA. “We’re in the process of finishing up and flying for the first time a cell biology culture unit, which will enable us to start cell cultures on orbit… We’re also working on qRT-PCR capability for the space station.”

NASA is also increasing its biology research capabilities on the International Space Station (ISS), according to Zeituni. “We also have on orbit a fluorescence microscope for our investigators to use. We’re getting wonderful fluorescence imaging with that… Investigators also have access to video cameras in the mouse habitats, fruit fly habitats and on the C. elegans cultures. You can watch C. elegans [in space] and see how they move, see that they’re behaving normally. We’ve successfully brought back fruit flies to see how they readapt to normal gravity,” Zeituni said.

But beyond basic culture and imaging, it’s up to the PI labs back on earth to finish the experiments, said Tomko. Astronauts can freeze or fix specimens in space, which are later brought back to earth. “The limitations of actually doing things on orbit are really rather severe, both in terms of the amount of time the astronauts have for doing hands-on experiments and also for storage.” explained Tomko. “Something that would take a graduate student or an undergraduate 15 minutes in a lab could take hours because of the fact that you’re weightless and fixatives and fluids that can be potentially dangerous to the crew have to be triple contained. So it’s a challenging environment to do the work,” he conceded. “Part of the challenge in getting the experiments flown is that astronauts have to be trained to operate everything, so getting that stuff scheduled prior to the flight at an appropriate time so they have retention of what they learned is a challenge.”

Setting up an experiment in space is difficult but space station research has produced results. Zeituni pointed to recently published work from the ISS based on the mechanisms of eye damage in space or on how bone marrow stem cells are affected by microgravity. Other ISS-based research has explored how bacterial growth is increased in space and changes in protein expression in plants. Research in space has other advantages, Tomko said, “A great thing about NASA, especially on the space station, we can provide a lot of metadata. We know the carbon dioxide, the temperature, and the relative humidity on the day of the experiment, which are difficult to gauge on earth.”

One of the developments to come out of ISS work is a device that now allows scientists to do simulated microgravity cell culture on Earth. “An important part of the ground-based simulation is the rotating wall vessel,” said Tomko. It was developed by Dave Wolfe, a medical doctor and electrical engineer who subsequently became an astronaut. Working in space, Wolfe tested tissue culture methods. Back on Earth, Wolfe and colleagues developed the rotating wall vessel to simulate microgravity.

NASA periodically recruits Mission Specialist Astronauts, adventurers who, like Dave Wolfe, are less than 6 foot 4 inches tall, have decent vision and blood pressure, and have advanced degrees in science. For those who’d rather send cell cultures into space or simulate microgravity in the comfort of their own labs, register here to find out about the next call for proposals. To learn more about the kind of projects NASA is looking for, see past solicitations here or search funded proposals here by using keyword “space biology.”

That 28% payline, said Zeituni, may not last if the word gets out.

About the Author:

Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.