HudsonAlpha associate growing crystals in space

An experiment by HudsonAlpha associate company iXPressGenes launched today onboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule en route to the International Space Station.

Huntsville, Ala. – An experiment by HudsonAlpha associate company iXPressGenes launched today onboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule en route to the International Space Station. Synthetic and bioengineering company iXpressGenes was one of the first recipients of a grant from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to send an experiment on advancing protein crystallization in microgravity to the ISS national laboratory.

iXpress is growing protein crystals on the ISS for neutron crystallography, which is the only biophysical technique to definitively locate hydrogen atoms in a protein using neutron radiation, said iXpressGenes President Joseph Ng, Ph.D. “About half of a protein’s atoms are comprised of hydrogens, and knowing their positions can help us understand the function of the proteins associated with health, defense, energy or agriculture,” Ng said.

Obtaining large volume crystals is more difficult on Earth due to gravity, but in the microgravity of space, protein crystals can be grown to large dimensions.

iXpressGenes is studying a protein that is an enzyme called inorganic pyrophosphatase, or IPPase. IPPase is coupled to biochemical reactions associated with the passage of genetic information including DNA replication and processes related to gene expression.

The company is interested in understanding the structural architecture of IPPase. “If we can know the atomic spatial arrangements of every atom in IPPase, we would be able to modify the enzyme by bioengineering techniques to make it more active or design molecules that can inhibit the protein,” explained Ng. “In case the IPPase is from a pathogen, an antibiotic can be made to deactivate the enzyme.”

The process begins at HudsonAlpha where scientists at iXpressGenes produce large amounts of proteins and test conditions that are optimal for crystal growth on the space station. The proteins will be onboard the space station for approximately six months.

About HudsonAlpha: HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology is a nonprofit institute dedicated to innovating in the field of genomic technology and sciences across a spectrum of biological problems. Its mission is three-fold: sparking scientific discoveries that can impact human health and well-being; fostering biotech entrepreneurship; and encouraging the creation of a genomics-literate workforce and society. The HudsonAlpha biotechnology campus consists of 152 acres nestled within Cummings Research Park, the nation’s second largest research park. Designed to be a hothouse of biotech economic development, HudsonAlpha’s state-of-the-art facilities co-locate scientific researchers with entrepreneurs and educators. The relationships formed on the HudsonAlpha campus allow serendipity to yield results in medicine and agriculture. Since opening in 2008, HudsonAlpha, under the leadership of Dr. Richard M. Myers, a key collaborator on the Human Genome Project, has built a name for itself in genetics and genomics research and biotech education, and boasts 26 biotech companies on campus.

About iXpressGenes: One of HudsonAlpha’s earliest associate company partners, iXpressGenes is a synthetic biology company. The current firm was launched in October 2009 as an outgrowth of an existing company, Extremozyme, Inc.,  founded in 2004. iXpressGenes is owned by the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and focuses on protein crystallization, specialty enzymes, and contract research associated with genetic markets.

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Margetta Thomas