Media Releases

Shuttle Atlantis to launch with yeast developed by Canadian researchers

July 8, 2011

TORONTO, ON – When NASA’s final space shut­tle mis­sion launch­es today it will car­ry four astro­nauts and some unusu­al pas­sen­gers – yeast cell growth exper­i­ments devel­oped by Cana­di­an researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Cel­lu­lar and Bio­mol­e­c­u­lar Research.

The Micro‑4 project will study sim­ple yeast cells to bet­ter under­stand human dis­ease. The genet­ic make­up of a yeast cell is remark­ably sim­i­lar to that of a human cell, which makes it an ide­al sys­tem for study­ing genet­ic defects and under­stand­ing how these defects may man­i­fest in human dis­ease. In two sep­a­rate exper­i­ments – con­duct­ed at the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion – researchers will study the effect of micro­grav­i­ty on cell growth, and how dif­fer­ent mutant genes might affect sus­cep­ti­bil­i­ty to a micro­grav­i­ty sit­u­a­tion.

“The results of these exper­i­ments may pro­vide crit­i­cal insight into which set of human genes are impor­tant and how these genes work togeth­er to help humans deal with extreme envi­ron­ments asso­ci­at­ed with space trav­el,” says Bren­da Andrews, researcher and direc­tor of the Ter­rence Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Cel­lu­lar and Bio­mol­e­c­u­lar Research “This infor­ma­tion could inform future planned mis­sions to Mars as well as longer-term set­tle­ment of moon and Mars-based colonies.”

In the first exper­i­ment, yeast cells will be grown in petri dish­es and kept in tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled cham­bers. To pre­vent cell growth, the cham­bers will be kept at 4o C until the shut­tle has reached the space sta­tion. Once on the sta­tion, cham­ber tem­per­a­ture will be increased to 30o C, an opti­mal tem­per­a­ture for yeast cell growth. The cells will be allowed to grow for 48 hours after which they will be cooled back down and returned to Toron­to for analy­sis. In the sec­ond exper­i­ment, 6000 dif­fer­ent yeast cells, each iden­ti­fied by a spe­cial ‘bar-code,’ will be grown in liq­uid broth and the crew will trans­fer the yeast cells to fresh liq­uid broth twice dur­ing the course of the mis­sion. These exper­i­ments will allow the Toron­to team to see how the space envi­ron­ment and the genet­ic back­ground of the cell com­bine to impact cell growth and sur­vival.

“Lit­tle is cur­rent­ly known about the effects of long-term zero grav­i­ty on bio­log­i­cal sys­tems. Through these exper­i­ments, we expect to get a huge amount of new infor­ma­tion about how genet­ic back­ground affects sur­vival in low-grav­i­ty/low- radi­a­tion envi­ron­ments, issues that are rel­e­vant to peo­ple exposed to these envi­ron­ments,” says Pro­fes­sor Corey Nis­low, researcher and prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor at the Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Bio­med­ical Research.

The Micro‑4 project is led by U of T pro­fes­sors Corey Nis­low, Guri Giaev­er, Charles Boone and Bren­da Andrews from the Don­nel­ly Cen­tre for Bio­med­ical Research. The project is coor­di­nat­ed by Michael Costan­zo, Project Leader in the Don­nel­ly Cen­tre and is sup­port­ed by Ames and BioServe Space Tech­nolo­gies. Tim­o­thy Ham­mond of the Durham Vet­er­ans Affairs Med­ical Cen­ter, Durham, N.C., is the prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor.

The space shut­tle Atlantis is sched­uled to lift off today at approx­i­mate­ly 11:36 a.m. from NASA’s Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Flori­da.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Joy­ann Cal­len­der
Media Rela­tions Offi­cer
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to

* Images and back­grounder avail­able upon request