Molecular Space Biology: Real-World Connections5 min read

Space exploration is more than just launching rockets and landing probes on Mars. The astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) and other explorers are conducting numerous experiments in an effort to solve real-world problems here on Earth.

Molecular research is at the crux of the work being done by space explorers. This interesting scientific field encompasses terpenes, cloning, cells, and more. This research can be applied to myriad industries here on Earth, such as healthcare, biotechnology, genetic testing, and botany. Let’s explore the real-world connections of molecular space biology.

Terpenes in Space

Terpenes are the trichome (the small hair or outgrowth) molecules of plants, which give different strains their distinctive aromas. There are several types of terpenes, which have varying effects along with providing a plant’s scent. Common terpenes found in the hemp plant, for example, include myrcene, limonene, and linalool. Myrcene promotes muscle relaxation, while linalool provides pain and anxiety relief.

Space explorers studied terpenes on the ISS from September 2011 to May 2012. It’s interesting to note that terpenes exist within nearly every living creature on Earth. ISS scientists chose to extract terpenes from wood samples in microgravity in order to study their effects. The study was sponsored by the National Laboratory, a group that wanted to understand how terpenes extracted without gravity differed from those extracted with traditional means in order to possibly create new products.

Growing and studying plants in space is nothing new: In 2014, red romaine lettuce was grown in space on Expedition 40 and tested back on Earth. The following year, astronauts on Expedition 44 ate their own harvested crop of red romaine. But the first plants grown in space date back 1973 and NASA’s Skylab, a modified Saturn V rocket. In a joint effort with students from Huntsville, Alabama, rice seeds were placed in a special growth chamber. The experiment studied how light affects plants.

Today, the ISS is home to an advanced plant habitat called VEGGIE. The long-running plant study explores the feasibility of harvesting edible plants, especially leafy greens, for consumption during spaceflight.

The Business of Biotech

The study of terpenes and plants in general are further connected to the field of biotechnology, which uses synthetic plant compounds in order to make or modify products or processes for a specific use. Terpenes may also serve as natural agricultural pesticides, and synthetic variations of the molecules are used as flavored food additives.

Biotechnology has far-reaching applications, as modern researchers use biotech to look for solutions to challenges facing humanity, such as hunger, the need for alternative energy, and disease. It’s also a billion-dollar industry: In the pharmaceutical industry alone, biotech companies raked in an estimated $225 billion in sales, which is about 25 percent of the overall market.

These impressive financial numbers mean that biotech is keenly interested in furthering its research, here on Earth and in space, at low gravity and in deep-space settings. Biotech studies on DNA are impacting a variety of healthcare fields, from immunology to regenerative medicines. And studies have shown that your DNA changes after spending time in space.

In 2015, NASA sent astronaut Scott Kelly on a one-year mission aboard the ISS to study the effects of long-term space flight on the human body. What made Scott Kelly the perfect test subject is that he is an identical twin. His brother Mark, also an astronaut, stayed behind on Earth so that their DNA could be compared once Scott returned from his mission.

NASA’s findings were illuminating, if not somewhat expected based on their previous observations of animals in space: Researchers concluded that about 93 percent of Scott’s DNA returned to normal upon landing. The other 7 percent had changed, possibly over the long term. In other words, his genome was not significantly altered, but the genes that were actively being used changed in order to adapt to his new environment in space.

Cloning, Cells, and Molecular Research

Changes in DNA during and after spaceflight are especially interesting to biotech researchers, and its applications are far-reaching. In July 2018, researchers on the ground at Caltech announced the creation of an artificial neural network made from synthetic DNA that could recognize numbers coded in molecules. The information gathered from the flight of Scott Kelly could lead to further innovations in artificial intelligence created with DNA.

Scott Kelly’s colleague, astronaut Kate Rubins, is furthering the study of cells in space. The biologist spent five months on the ISS in 2016, conducting hundreds of experiments. One of these was the study of how heart cells behave in a microgravity environment, for example. Her research is paving the way for further molecular studies in the realm of cloning.

Cloning is a concept that garners its fair share of controversy, but it has the potential to revolutionize the healthcare and biotechnology industries. Already, scientists have successfully cloned numerous animals, including sheep, pigs, and dogs, using only a small amount of genetic material. Dog cloning has proven to be immensely popular, with the South Korean company Sooam Biotech Research Foundation (SBRF) reporting the successful cloning of more than 600 companion animals as of 2018.

NASA hopes to get in on the cloning action. The same year that Kate Rubins headed to the ISS, NASA revealed its plan to grow human tissue in space. The agency requested scientists to create a thick and functional skin tissue that could survive off-planet, maintaining at least 85 percent cell survival over the course of a month.

If the work of NASA and astronauts aboard the ISS are any indication, molecular space biology is revolutionizing a number of industries here on Earth. The realms of biotechnology, botany, and cloning have seen a number of innovations thanks to the hard work of astronauts, and it will continue to do into the foreseeable future.

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