Research Team Earns Competitive Grant, Begins Biology Experiment for ISS Mission

MELBOURNE, FLA.—Florida Institute of Technology researchers have won a prestigious grant enabling their novel biology experiment to travel on a flight to the International Space Station (ISS). Their proposal, “Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life (SABOL): A Study into Alzheimer’s,” was just one of eight proposals chosen by Space Florida and NanoRacks, LLC, in the ISS Research Competition.

The winners receive research payload transportation to the ISS via an upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Launch is currently slated for December 2013.

Florida Tech faculty principal investigators are former astronaut Sam Durrance, professor of physics and space sciences; and College of Engineering faculty members Daniel Kirk and Hector Gutierrez. The principal investigators will work with students, including members of the Student Rocket Society, Society of Physics Students and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space to design and develop the payload and analyze the data.

“Through our project we seek to develop an improved understanding of the origin of life on our planet, increase our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and provide an opportunity to apply this new understanding for the betterment of humanity,” said Durrance.

Durrance leads the biological science experiment, which will investigate the spontaneous assembly of amyloid proteins into long linear fibers. Postmortem studies of the neurons taken from victims of Alzheimer’s disease show an accumulation of linear amyloid fibers composed of either Tau proteins or amyloid-β peptides. Both have been shown to self-organize in solution through colloidal interactions.

However, the mechanisms of amyloid fiber assembly are difficult to study on Earth because the protein fibers settle, which prevents further growth. In weightlessness they should stay suspended and continue growing with multiple fibers wrapping around each other into helical fiber bundles. The analysis of these fiber bundles should provide a clearer understanding of the internal structure of the amyloid fibers.

“It isn’t clear whether amyloid deposits are the cause or a symptom of the disease, or whether they will form in vivo (in a living organism) the same way they form in vitro (in a test tube), but it is clear that a complete understanding of the colloidal formation process will greatly benefit neurodegenerative disease research,” said Durrance. The researchers believe that understanding the colloidal chemistry and biochemistry of amyloid fiber formation should lead to strategies for controlling the process.

The experiment will include about nine different incubation periods from one day to 30 days during orbit operations. When the buffer solution and protein powder are mixed and the temperature is set, it takes about a day to agglomerate into protein spheres, a few days to form fibers and a week or more to become tangling fibers, which in 30 days on Earth, would settle.

Kirk and Gutierrez are co-directors of Florida Tech’s Aerospace Systems and Propulsion (ASAP) Laboratory.

“We are thrilled to see science and engineering students working side by side to develop a unique experiment that has the potential to help us understand the origins of life and, as importantly, to make progress in combating the insidious Alzheimer’s disease. Where else but at Florida Tech can there be such constructive interactions between scientists, engineers and students, who are having such fun thinking of how to send an experiment into space?” said Kirk.

The experiment, which will be contained in a payload box unit called a NanoLab Module—a four-inch cube—can be manipulated and monitored from Florida Tech laboratories while it is in flight. “One of our challenges is to make everything very small and automated,” said Durrance.

Approximately 30 science and engineering undergraduate and graduate students are involved in various phases of the project, including an extensive educational outreach effort. Florida Tech students will develop internet-based products highlighting science on ISS, and will work with middle school and high school students from Brevard County to conduct the ground control experiments to be used as a reference for comparing data gathered on the ISS.

For more information on SABOL, contact Durrance at or Kirk at

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