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Genomes in Space

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The genomic era is about to intersect with the space age. A recent restructuring of NASA’s science organization aims to foster research into genomics and biotechnology on the International Space Station, now orbiting the Earth and being readied for permanent occupation.

NASA scientist Steve Davison says the space agency has been involved in biomedical research since it was established. The efforts were previously under the control of an office within the human spaceflight enterprise. Now, the Office of Biological and Physical Research will function as a high-level enterprise of its own, reporting directly to NASA Administrator Dan Goldin.

“Genomics will be a major player in the new enterprise,” says Kathie Olsen, the space agency’s chief scientist. A division specifically devoted to space genomics and cellular function will be established, she adds. Olsen will head up the office until a new associate administrator is selected.

NASA is particularly interested in questions such as how gene expression is affected by exposure to radiation and microgravity. The answers that scientists get will help determine whether long stays in the space station and long-duration flights beyond low Earth orbit are feasible. Long-term experiments planned for the station will have to wait until it is outfitted with the US Laboratory Module, currently scheduled for January 2001.

Meanwhile, the shuttles bringing up equipment for the station also carry short-duration scientific payloads.

During its mission to the station in September the Space Shuttle Atlantis hosted an experiment to determine how microgravity alters gene expression in kidney cells. In space, cells in suspension may join together to form three-dimensional, organ-like tissues, a result that is difficult to achieve in Earth-based laboratories. Scientists hope to use the microgravity environment to learn how to manipulate this process and produce tissues for use in humans or as models for testing new medicines.

— Sherri Chasin Calvo

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