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October 29, 1998

Pitt experiment to be conducted on board space shuttle

When John Glenn and the space shuttle Discovery reach orbit following today's scheduled launch from Kennedy Space Center, one of the first operations to take place will be a Pitt biological sciences experiment.

Mission specialist Pedro Duque will begin a protein crystallization experiment. The research is designed to provide scientists with a variety of crystals grown in micro-gravity. The crystals will be returned to Pitt for visualization analysis by X-ray diffraction. "The experiment runs for the duration of the shuttle flight, and the longer it runs, the better, so we want it to start as soon as possible after launch," said John Rosenberg, professor of biological sciences.

The experiment is the first stage in ongoing efforts to visualize the atomic structure of protein molecules. Structural knowledge helps Rosenberg and his colleagues understand how these molecules work in living cells. "This is basic research. We crystallize proteins in space because it has been seen that a micro-gravity environment often yields crystals that are better ordered, and that translates into better image quality from our X-ray diffraction," said Rosenberg. Rosenberg and Pitt scientists will be looking at four specific protein structures: EcoRI endonuclease, GroEL, BiP, and RepC. Rosenberg is studying EcoRI endonuclease, a gene-splicing enzyme.

He and Roger Hendrix, of biological sciences, are studying GroEL, a protein that assists other proteins to "fold up" into their final shape after they are made in a cell. Collaborating with Jeff Brodsky, also of biological sciences, Rosenberg is looking at a similar protein, BiP. Together with Saleem Khan, of molecular genetics and biochemistry, School of Medicine, Rosenberg hopes to better understand RepC, a protein involved in the replication of DNA. These crystallization experiments take place in a module owned by Spacehab Corp., a Virginia-based company that leases research space on shuttle missions. The company was co-founded by Pitt chemistry alumnus David Rossi. The experiments are part of a larger national effort organized by Pitt alumnus Daniel Carter, president of New Century Pharmaceuticals, with the goal being enhanced drug discovery.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 31 Issue 5

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