U Chemistry in Spaaaaaaace
> UNEWS - 2018 - Paul Gabrielsen
If humanity is going to push the boundaries of space exploration, we’re going to need plants to come along for the ride. Not just spinach or potatoes, though—plants can do so much more than just feed us.
A science experiment aiming to demonstrate plants’ capabilities in space has arrived at the International Space Station and is ready to begin relaying data. The experiment, according to University of Utah chemistry professor and project chief scientist Ming Hammond, will assess in real-time whether plants engineered to bio-manufacture specific proteins, in a process called synthetic biology, can do so in space. The experiment began on Dec. 18 and will run through Dec. 28.
“There’s a lot of promise, potential and hope that we can use the tools developed in synthetic biology to solve problems,” Hammond says, “not just that you would find in space, but where you have extreme limitation of resources.”
Hammond’s involvement in this experiment, called Hydra-1, began at the University of California, Berkeley, before her recent move to the U. She and Berkeley graduate student Rebekah Kitto joined with a “very multidisciplinary team”, Hammond says, of scientists and engineers looking to perform synthetic biology experiments in space.
Synthetic biology is a field that engineers biological systems. In this case, the team is looking at plants as potential bio-factories. Every organism naturally produces countless proteins as part of its biological function, so why not engineer a plant to produce, say, a needed medication or a polymer that could be useful in future long-term space exploration missions?
“The benefit is that you can take seeds with you,” Hammond says. “They’re very lightweight. They grow and gain biomass using the CO2 that we breathe out. And if those plants can produce proteins on demand—we know that plants are able to produce anti-viral and anti-cancer antibodies on a large scale.”
Synthetic biology is already established on Earth. But translating that same technology to spaceflight requires a different set of considerations. Hammond and her team encountered many of these constraints when adapting their experiment to operate within a small cube-shaped enclosure, and without tending from the space station crew. The enclosure is the same size (10 cm on a side) as the small low-cost CubeSats (ICE-Cubes) that are rising in popularity.
For an experiment on earth, researchers could test samples of plants as they grew to see if they were producing the desired protein. But that’s not an option in space – in the early stages of planning, the team didn’t even know if they’d get the experiment back at the end.
So the team decided to engineer plants to change color as they produced the target protein, and monitor the progress with a camera. It’s an elegant and innovative solution, based on a previously published method, but adapted for the constraints of a cube in space.
“We had to take something that worked beautifully in the most carefully controlled and nurturing conditions,” Hammond says, “and get it to work under very stringent, harsh and challenging conditions without human intervention in the plant cube.” The plant cube was designed with the forward vision of preparing for plant growth studies on the Moon, and the Hydra-1 mission is a technology development step towards that goal.
The team of collaborators spans two continents, with other partners at NASA Ames Research Center, the International Space University, and the University of Strasbourg. But as one of the experiment’s lead scientists, Hammond will be monitoring data from the experiment, and conducting the matching Earthbound control experiment, here at the University of Utah. The control experiment will grow the same plants, engineered to produce the same protein, but lag behind the experiment on the space station by one day, so that researchers can match both experiments’ temperature conditions.
The entire experiment will take 10 days. “By day four or five we should know if the experiment worked,” Hammond says. “There’s so many variables that we can’t know the answers to.” In January, the cube will return to Earth and will be further analyzed in Strasbourg. “I plan for this experience to prepare us for doing more chemistry experiments in space!” Hammond says.
On the engineering side, the Hydra-1 experiment will help develop a framework, through a commercial company called ICE-Cubes, to commercialize similar cube-based space science experiments in the future.
It takes a lot of time and effort to put equipment in space, and Hammond appreciates the many hours of work that the team has put in over the past two years. “We are a small but dedicated group of volunteers,” she says. “In the past two weeks, people worked nonstop to fix last-minute things that came up before launch. I’m just really proud of the effort that everyone has undertaken to get us to this point.”
Hammond and her family traveled to the NASA Kennedy Space Center to watch the Dec. 5 launch of her experiment, which was nestled within a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. “I think most of us feel the allure and excitement that is stirred by the wonder of looking up and thinking about humans living and working at the space station,” she says. “It was an amazing opportunity to share the launch with my 6-year-old son and other family members. Of all the things I’ve done in science this, for them, is the one that probably inspires the most interest and awe.”
Humans of The U: Ming Hammond
“This past summer I joined the U as an associate professor of chemistry. I’m also excited to be a part of the Henry Eyring Center for Cell and Genome Science. My lab uses chemistry to understand how bacteria, and also immune cells, perceive and change behavior in response to their surroundings.
My first experience in a research lab came from meeting my undergraduate advisor, professor Barbara Imperiali, as a freshman. She saw I had work-study financial aid. I told her boldly, ‘Actually, I’d love to do work-study in a research lab.’ That same week I got an email from one of her postdocs saying ‘I’m looking for a student to work with me on a project. Why don’t you come meet with me?’
I worked in her lab every semester and summer for three years, so I feel like I got my 10,000 hours in early on. I learned a lot of things in the lab before taking the classes. It really motivated me academically. I wanted to learn and understand more about what I was doing in the lab.
My parents, to this day, will ask me ‘How is Professor Imperali doing?’ They wanted to meet her at graduation. Two years after I started my own lab, I had déjà vu when meeting the parents of my first undergraduate at her graduation. They told me that they’d set my lab webpage as their computer’s homepage.
As a professor, I think back sometimes to how impactful my experiences were as a freshman, getting that chance just because I asked. The first person you ask isn’t necessarily the first person to say yes, who will give you that shot. But we all started out as that nervous freshman, eager to try new things.”
A Conversation with Dr. Ming C. Hammond - Beckman Scholar
Meet Dr. Ming Hammond, one of the members of the inaugural class of Beckman Scholars, and read her thoughts and perspectives regarding the personal impact of the program on her undergraduate experience and resulting career.
Then: 1998 Beckman Scholars Program Award Recipient, California Institute of Technology
Now: Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Molecular & Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley
“The support of my research mentor and the Beckman Scholars Program gave me the confidence and the skills to pursue an academic and research career.”
AMBF: Prior to college, were you curious about a career in science?
Ming Chen Hammond (MH): Yes.
AMBF: What exposure did you have to knowing what research in a laboratory would be like?
MH: As a high school student, I spent a summer commuting into Baltimore city to shadow researchers in a lab at UMD Baltimore medical center that worked on studying the mu opioid receptor.
AMBF: When you heard about the Beckman Scholar opportunity, what inspired you to apply?
MH: My research advisor, Barbara Imperiali, told me about the program and encouraged me to apply.
AMBF: What was your research focused on? What were the results?
MH: For the Beckman Scholar application, I conceived of an independent project to identify the active site subunit of the enzyme, oligosaccharyl transferase, by synthesizing a peptide inhibitor carrying a biotin affinity tag and a metal-chelating sequence that Thomas Kodadek had shown could be used for site-specific crosslinking. It turned out that this project was a “chemical biology” project, before I had even heard of the field of chemical biology. As a Beckman Scholar, I carried out the chemical synthesis, the enzyme purification (from fresh pig liver delivered from a farm!), the activity assays, then the crosslinking experiments to ID the active site. We didn’t publish the results, but years later I read a paper that confirmed my results using a different method. I won the Caltech SURF (summer undergraduate research fellowship) speaking competition for my talk about this work, the chemistry department award (Arie J. Haagen-Smit Memorial award) for my research, and I received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute predoctoral fellowship (that I accepted) and National Science Foundation graduate fellowship (that I declined). I was also featured in a Time magazine article about Caltech at the time.
AMBF: What was the most memorable part about working with your mentor or working in the laboratory?
MH: Again, what was unique about my research experience as a Beckman Scholar was having an independent project. When my mentor moved to MIT in the summer before my senior year, the Beckman Scholarship allowed me to spend 10 weeks in Cambridge, MA to finish my project. Moving to a new city and a new institution opened my eyes a lot, even before grad school.
AMBF: How did the experience change your thinking about science and conducting research?
MH: This experience was the first time that I had the freedom and the opportunity to conceive of and execute my own research idea. This was very empowering, and I realized that independent research was what I want to do the rest of my life, and it solidified my desire to become a professor. Also, many of the ways I run my lab is inspired by the level of organization and the camaraderie I experienced in the Imperiali lab.
AMBF: Where did you go after graduation and where are you now?
MH: I went to the Chemistry Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley. I am currently an Assistant Professor in Chemistry and Molecular & Cell Biology at UC Berkeley. I am recipient of the BWF Career Award at the Scientific Interface and the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. My lab develops assays that are useful for high-throughput drug screening inside and outside of cells, and we apply these assays to understand how chemical signals affect bacterial behavior. I have published many papers and have applied for patents, several of which are licensed or under evaluation for licensing.
AMBF: Do you have any advice for undergraduates considering a research career?
MH: I have advised and mentored a lot of undergraduates, as majors advisor, teacher, and research advisor. For those in other research labs, I gently push them to talk with their professor at least once a semester. For those in my research lab, I encourage them to consider coming up with their own projects after they have learned the ropes.
AMBF: Did you meet Dr. Beckman in person, and if so, what was most memorable about meeting him?
MH: I met Dr. Beckman in person at the first Beckman Scholar Symposium.
AMBF: Any final thoughts?
MH: I just want to express my tremendous gratitude and appreciation to Dr. Beckman, his family, and the Scholars program. The support of my research mentor and the Beckman Scholars Program gave me the confidence and the skills to pursue an academic and research career.