WASHINGTON, October 4 – NASA has announced a restructuring of its science organization intended to strengthen its efforts in genomics, biotechnology, and other emerging fields.
NASA's research in these disciplines was 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.
NASA administrator Daniel Goldin envisions an interdisciplinary research program encompassing biology, chemistry, physics and engineering, in which scientists from both NASA and the academic community can take advantage of NASA's technological capabilities and orbiting laboratories.
" Genomics will be a major player in the new enterprise," said Kathie Olsen, the space agency's chief scientist. A division specifically devoted to space genomics and cellular function will be established, she added.
Olsen will head up the BPR until a new administrator for the enterprise 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 International Space Station and long-duration flights beyond low Earth orbit are feasible.
The organizational move comes as the ISS is being prepared for permanent occupation. Long-term experiments planned for the space station will have to wait until it is outfitted with the U.S. Laboratory Module, currently scheduled for January 2001. Meanwhile, the shuttles bringing up equipment for the ISS also carry short-duration scientific payloads.
Aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis during its mission to the station last month was the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus. The CGBA allows automated mixing and heating of biological fluids during in-flight experiments.
One of the experiments conducted during the Atlantis mission involved determining 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.
NASA scientist Steve Davison said the new research organization is also poised to facilitate the use of the space agency's expertise in non-invasive sensors, nanotechnology, and systems integration. An agreement with the National Cancer Institute will bring these technologies to bear in an effort to detect early changes in cells that warn of cancers in earthbound patients as well as dangers to astronauts on lengthy missions.
A solicitation for grant proposals will be issued in about a month, Davison said.