UC scientist to develop nanosatellites for protein crystallization

UC biochemistry researcher Dr. Sarah Kessans and her team will soon start working on developing nanosatellites and biological payloads. Her proposal has been funded $500,000 by the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE)’s Catalyst: Strategic Space 2019 to take biochemistry to new heights.

Protein crystallization is an essential method for structural analysis by X-ray diffraction, neutron diffraction, and some techniques of electron microscopy. It is one of the most powerful techniques in modern biology.

Microgravity, which is used as a tool for improving crystal growth, is a high-profile enterprise, especially with the upcoming prospects for utilizing the International Space Station, yet the issue of crystallization in microgravity is an extremely controversial one.

However, numerous experiments conducted in microgravity have illustrated the benefits of a microgravity environment for producing high-quality protein crystals that are otherwise intractable on Earth.

Unfortunately, the current options for Kiwi researchers to conduct research in microgravity environments are quite limited. To expand opportunities for researchers in New Zealand and around the globe to use microgravity for essential protein crystallization experiments, we are developing a nanosatellite-based space biology laboratory for crystallizing proteins in low Earth orbit,” Dr. Kessans says.

With the cost of small satellite development and deployment decreasing and the availability of launches increasing, there now exists a cost-effective platform with which to use these satellites for advanced biotechnological research as well as commercial R&D applications.

The MBIE Catalyst funding will help the team to establish critical partnerships between the international research team, NASA research centers, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).