Dispatches from the US (4)

(January 5th, 2015) In December, US science heralded biosciences research into outer space, with rodents and microbes switching their earthly home labs for the ISS; James Watson sells his prized possession and we take a peep into some of the starry discoveries in the States.

NASA completes Rodent Research-1 operations

The lab mouse is an unparalleled model for studying human health and disease. One of NASA’s missions has been to test whether the rodent can be as insightful in space as it is on earth. Thus, in September, NASA launched Rodent Research-1 (RR-1) to validate the hardware system and operations for sustained rodent research in space. The project passed its first test in November.

In the first unmanned rodent spaceflight, twenty “Black-6” mice were transported in a SpaceX vehicle to the ISS on September 21st. The initial goals were to test the efficacy of the animal transport hardware, a triple-module system that enables animal transfer and habituation in space, and to assess crew performance in mice handling. Part of RR-1 fostered a Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) study of muscle atrophy. The mice were carried in the system’s transporter module during launch and ascent to the ISS but moved to the habitat module, via an access unit, where they remained for most of the study. Ground scientists closely observed their activity. At the end of the 37-day study, the longest so far in rodent research in space, the liver and spleen samples of the CASIS mice were flown back to earth.

Samples of the NASA transport study will return in January. Here they will be profiled for the expression of signature genes viz. those of metabolism, assessed for markers of general health and compared to ground controls. The achievement sets the stage for more profound experiments in space to study the effects of weightlessness on animal well-being. The results may be relevant to human spaceflight, our understanding of basic biology and have an impact on ageing and disease of earthlings.

UC Davis hosts a microbe marathon aboard the ISS

From the surface of the earth to the contents of our gut, microbes are everywhere. In fact, microbes are the pioneering colonisers of barren land. Their growth dynamics spells out prospects for life in these places. Recognising the gravity of microbiota in space, a research team at UC Davis initiated Project Mercurri early this year to compare the growth of microbes atop the ISS with their earthly counterparts. The winners of a microbe marathon held earlier this month have just been announced.

In a crowd-sourced initiative coordinated by SciStarter and Science Cheerleader, microbes were collected from various places across the nation viz. the statue of a school mascot, the surface of an antique pressure vessel at a museum, the kitchen of a news channel set and the surface of the Mars exploration rover, among others. The strains first contested each other in a terrestrial growth competition. After the prelims, Jonathan Eisen, microbiologist at UC Davis, picked the top 48 non-pathogenic germs for their voyage into sky. The finalists shot into space to the ISS in April and were deep-frozen until the final. On December 8th, astronauts aboard the ISS thawed out the samples to set off the marathon while scientists performed an exact replica of the experiment on earth. Microbe growth was scored in three categories: (a) best sprinter, for the winner of the rapid growth phase, (b) best huddle, for the microbe that formed the densest colonies, and (c) best tip off, for the contestant who took off the fastest soon after being thawed out.

The good news is that 47 out of 48 strains grew in space and many filled up entire agar plates. Among the winners are Bacillus megaterium, the largest bacterium ever discovered, Bacillus stratosphericus, a strain capable of generating electricity, Exiguobacterium indicum, a microbe that grows at very low temperatures, and Bacillus aryabhatti, a bacterium that aids plant growth in desolate lands.

Watson sells his Nobel Prize only to have it back

Many scientists in their heart of hearts wish to someday hold the coveted gold medal. The Nobel Prize is worth about $1.2 million while the title it confers is priceless. But are all Nobel laureates proud of their possession? Sadly, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, is not. In late November, the renowned molecular biologist put his medal up for sale. Watson rose to fame when he shared the 1962 Nobel for unravelling the DNA structure with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins. His contribution has revolutionised our understanding of DNA and paved the way to major scientific strides in genomics and proteomics.

Nonetheless, he tarnished his reputation when, in 2007, Watson made derisive remarks on the intellectual capability of black people that made him resign from his then chancellor position at Cold Spring Laboratory, NY. Ever since, Watson has had no income from academia and only held temporary positions elsewhere. The dejected scientist sold his medal to use the proceedings to buy art and donate a part to the institutions he had served.

At the auction held in New York City last week, Russian magnate Alisher Usmanov bought the medal for an exorbitant sum of $4.1 million. He now wishes to return the Nobel Prize to Watson and have the money invested in research. “In my opinion, a situation in which an outstanding scientist has to sell a medal recognizing his achievements is unacceptable,” Usmanov told The Guardian, and added that the award must belong to its rightful owner.

US discoveries of 2014

As the new year has just begun, here’s the gist of 2014’s scientific breakthroughs. On top of the list is the unprecedented Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency. More on this can be found here. Other achievements include:

  • Erasing fearful memories in mice by light-enabled activation of selected neurons in the brain, Massachussetts Institute of Technology, MA. Scientists altered the emotional content of memory in mice, replacing harsh emotions with pleasant ones, and vice versa, by selectively turning on a set of light-sensitive neurons in the hippocampus (seat for memory) and amygdala (fear centre) using a laser beam.
  • Attempt to treat diabetes in mice by stem cell-derived pancreatic cells, Harvard University, MA. researchers differentiated human pluripotent stem cells in a dish into pancreatic β cells, cells that secrete insulin to modulate glucose levels. These stem cell-derived β cells when transplanted into diabetic mice swiftly reinstated glucose levels to normal.   
  • Programming self-assembly of a thousand miniature robots, Harvard University, MA. Boston engineers programmed a group of 1024 inch-sized robots to auto-assemble into different 2D shapes in the largest robotic huddle. Such cooperative robotic swarms may be the future labour in agriculture, mining, disaster operations and even the army. 

Madhuvanthi Kannan

Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Petr Kratochvil

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