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Cell Biologists Blast NASA

WASHINGTON, D.C.--NASA's program to study protein crystallography has made "no serious contributions" to scientific knowledge and should be canceled--along with most other life science research in space. That's the thrust of a report released yesterday by the American Society of Cell Biology. ASCB undertook the study last year after NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin spoke about space-based research at the ASCB's annual meeting.

NASA scientists maintain that crystals grown in space are larger and, consequently, reveal more details of protein structure. This could open the door for novel drug designs, they say. But the ASCB believes life science results simply haven't been worth the millions that NASA invests each year. "If space-based [biological] science had come before a review panel, it wouldn't have been funded," says Donald Brown, the Carnegie Institution of Washington biologist who chaired the study. The panel concluded that only experiments in astronaut physiology should be conducted aboard the space station, and that most life science research should be ground based.

This angers some biologists whose experiments have flown aboard NASA shuttles and on Mir. "It just seems to be more of an opinion than a review of the facts," says Daniel Carter, a biophysicist who formerly worked for NASA and now directs Century Pharmaceuticals of Huntsville, Alabama. His space-based crystallography work yielded protein crystals longer than 1 centimeter--more than 10 times the length of most crystal proteins grown on the ground.

But many crystallographers note that new cryogenic techniques can freeze very small crystals and yield comparable data sets. "If there were stunning successes from microgravity crystallization, we would be clamoring to continue the program," says Wayne Hendrickson, a biochemist at Columbia University. However, NASA's director of life sciences, Joan Vernik, says she is "perplexed" by the report and notes that the space-based crystallography program recently received glowing reviews from the National Institutes of Health.