NEW YORK, July 23 - NASA has selected Caliper Technologies to help develop a microfluidics system for crystallizing proteins and other biological molecules in space, the company said Monday.
Caliper will provide its LabChip microfluidics system, and give technical support to NASA researchers as they attempt to build a microfluidics system that will crystallize molecules for use on the International Space Station. The research is part of a larger effort, called Biological Crystal Growth in Space, that is one element of NASA's six year-old Microgravity Research Program.
Because Caliper is not an authorized government contractor, the company will work with NASA scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., through a subcontract with Sverdrup Technology, an subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering.
The motivation for applying microfluidics technology in space, Caliper and NASA say, lies in the potential for a remote-controlled experimental system for finding the right set of conditions that allow a crystal to form. On earth, it may take weeks to months for researchers to discover these conditions--often through a trial-and-error approach. Eliminating gravity, however, may make it easier for proteins to spontaneously crystallize.
NASA scientists are interested in Caliper's technology, a Caliper spokeswoman said, because the LabChip system can miniaturize, integrate, and automate fluid mixing and dispensing steps, allowing researchers to use much less reagents than in typical benchtop experiments. In addition, the LabChip can remotely image the experiments in progress. Caliper and NASA have performed a pilot study showing that the technology is feasible for use in space, Caliper said.
As part of an applications development program that Caliper offers its customers, the company will provide NASA with its Caliper 42 workstation and several versions of its microfluidics chips. NASA scientists will attempt to design a chip architecture with Caliper's help that can perform iterative protein crystallization procedures. If the experiment is successful, Caliper will then custom design and manufacture a chip based on NASA's work.
A Caliper spokeswoman valued the contract at about $500,000 in revenue. Typically an applications development program lasts for about a year, she said.