Monday, April 28, 2008

Space, the final bio-frontier?

In case it hasn't been obvious from the occasional post, I am a spaceflight aficionado. As a very young child I watched some of the last moon landings. Many hours of play were spent imagining riding a rocket, playing with toy rockets, and building Lego spaceships.

At some point I realized I really didn't quite have the Right Stuff. Clearly I was never going to cut it as a pilot (I carry scale models of Hubble's corrective lenses on my nose daily), and in the end my scientific interests weren't really going to support traveling to space. So it became purely an observational hobby, though the dream has been rekindled a bit by the notion of buying a rocket ticket (alas, 2001 has come-and-gone without the vision of 2001). When Millennium changed travel agents a few years back & we needed to fill out new travel preference forms, I put Virgin Galactic as my preferred carrier.

A more inner struggle, one reflected in much of the space community, is the appropriate role of humans in space, or perhaps more pointedly, of government funding of humans in space. It is one thing for some gazillionaire to pay multi-millions to take a joy ride (anyone want to spot me $50M for a week PLUS a spacewalk?); it's another for governments to continue to spend billions to put people up there. Manned flight is thrilling, but robots tend to get more data.

An item in The Scientist (free registration may be required) points to this debate again, and close to my scientific home. Lobbying is firing up again for biology research in orbit, and given that the company (Spacehab) lobbying for it builds manned research gear, they're pushing the manned angle.

Space research has yielded many earthly benefits, but they're mostly in areas such as communications & remote sensing. It is difficult to really prove a case for very many other areas. Spaceflight remains rare, unpredicable & expensive, three qualities that few like to associate with their research programs.

Two biotech claims are advanced to support space research. One is the long-standing issue of crystallography -- the claim is that crystals for X-ray diffraction studies can be grown in space that are either higher quality than ground samples or which simply can't be made on the ground. The other is a very new claim of vaccine research.

If anyone knows of a good, balanced (not in the Fox News sense!) review of space-based crystallography, I'd love to have a pointer. I'm not in that community, but my general impression is that while useful data has been collected on space-grown crystals, it really hasn't taken that community by storm. Perhaps if flights were cheap & frequent it could, but other approaches such as high-throughput condition screening have had a bigger impact.

The vaccine claims are based on a paper published last year in PNAS (also covered in The Scientist) which found that spaceflight changed some key gene expression programs in Salmonella and that the space-flown bugs were more virulent. A quick scan suggests that the paper is reasonably well done on the transcriptional profiling side (both biological & technical replicates). But, it also points to the challenge of space research -- when is the next flight opportunity to determine how general the effect is?

I do believe there are a lot of fascinating fundamental questions to ask about biology in space. Many would be in the developmental & cellular world: to what degree does gravity influence various developmental processes. Some other research might be less about space & more about behavior: Skylab astronauts had spiders spin webs, and it took a number of trials for the spiders to learn to do it in Zero-G. It could be a fascinating way to study such behaviors & how an animal adapts to a changed environment. But, most space biology questions have an importance scaled to our commitment to manned presence in space. I'm a bit skeptical that the Salmonella experiments really help understand virulence on the ground (or more importantly, are going to be generally relevant -- but sometimes it doesn't hurt to be lucky!), but I'd sure want that line of work driven hard if I was going to spend months in space!

1 comment:

Jason Morrison said...

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