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Rensselaer researchers using drop module for advanced protein studies on ISS
RPI's ring-sheared drop experiment on the International Space Station
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Rensselaer researchers using drop module for advanced protein studies on ISS
by Staff Writers
Troy NY (SPX) Jul 18, 2023

The International Space Station (ISS) will soon become the focal point for an expanded scientific experiment, aiming to delve further into the physics of protein solutions. The study will be conducted using a unique piece of equipment known as the ring-sheared drop module, a tool that capitalizes on the microgravity environment aboard the ISS. The announcement was made by researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), who have secured funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for this ambitious project.

The three-year grant, totalling $452,847, was awarded to Amir Hirsa, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering, and Patrick Underhill, professor of chemical and biological engineering at RPI. The grant will kick off on August 1, marking almost a decade since the inception of the initial technology through a grant from NASA.

The core of this project - the ring-sheared drop experiment - takes advantage of the absence of gravity in space. In this setting, surface tension alone can maintain a volume of liquid in cohesion, a phenomenon impossible to replicate on Earth due to the effects of gravity. This presents the researchers with a unique opportunity to study the dynamics of fluids without the influence of container walls, a constant factor during experiments on Earth.

Proteins, the macromolecules at the center of this research, are complex, flexible structures that carry out a myriad of functions within living organisms. They participate in activities ranging from the replication of genetic material to providing structural support to cells and organisms. The multifaceted nature of proteins is due to their biochemical properties, size, and flexibility, which allow them to undergo structural modifications that can significantly influence their function or even provoke disease.

According to Professor Hirsa, comprehending and predicting how the environmental conditions experienced by proteins impact their structure, conformation, and subsequent function in solution is a major objective in science. This understanding would not only benefit fundamental scientific research but also the industrial sector, including pharmaceutical manufacturing. The insights garnered from this research could lead to the creation of predictive models, offering a valuable tool for both sectors.

The newly acquired grant aims to broaden the understanding of protein behavior in specific circumstances. More precisely, the RPI team seeks to probe deeper into the phenomena of protein association, aggregation, and gelation in systems characterized by high protein concentrations and the presence of free surfaces. This exploration promises to push the boundaries of our knowledge on proteins and their behavior, opening new avenues for their manipulation and utilization in various scientific and industrial domains.

As the scientific community awaits the start of this expanded project aboard the ISS, the insights it could yield hold the promise to reshape our understanding of protein behavior in solution, having far-reaching implications for both academic research and industrial applications.

View the experiment.

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