Yeast, the final frontier

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yeastUBC researcher is sending yeast to the International Space Station to learn about genetics and the environment

Every brewmaster and baker knows that yeast rises. But, as UBC associate professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Corey Nislow will tell you, some yeast rises way, way above the rest.

This month, special yeast strains developed by Nislow’s team will dock at the International Space Station, shuttled there by SpaceX, the private spacecraft company contracted by NASA to deliver cargo. Once aboard the ISS, astronauts will follow Nislow’s instructions to perform experiments on how microgravity affects gene expression, the process in which the genetic code directs protein synthesis.

“Yeast are the simplest model organisms with cells like ours that you can do useful experiments on,” explains Nislow, who, with his wife and colleague Professor Guri Giaever, relocated his lab from the University of Toronto to UBC in January 2013.

“Despite a million years of evolution, they retain enough features that are in common with human cells.”

2014: A yeast odyssey

Nislow has collaborated with the University of Colorado Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies and Duke Veterans Affairs Medical Center to perform a series of NASA-funded experiments aboard the ISS, and will be sending his yeast on every even-numbered SpaceX flight through 2015.

Despite the sci-fi aura, the results of these experiments have important real-world applications. The 6,000 strains of yeast used by Nislow and his team each have a single, deleted gene. By examining how microgravity affects the different strains of yeast, they hope to pinpoint exactly which genes are being affected, and how.

We know the cellular consequences of those altered genes on earth,” says Nislow. “Now we’re asking: When you’re in microgravity, what changes?”

Having already sent two yeast experiments into space with NASA, Nislow has confirmed that cells in space experience DNA damage as a result of cosmic radiation—a discovery that has applications well beyond space travel.

“One of the things that a cell does is generate very reactive molecules. That’s just part of your metabolism,” he explains. “We know in space that the amount and type of reactive oxygen produced is different than it is on earth, and we already know that tumours have a different spectrum of reactive oxygen species. We’re hoping to find parallels between those two.”

Ready for blast-off

Nislow’s space experiments started three years ago, when he was approached by Duke University VA to contribute an experiment that could be sent up on NASA’s final Atlantis shuttle launch on July 8, 2011. While that date may have marked the end of NASA’s shuttle program, it was the beginning of Nislow’s forays to the final frontier.

“The actual launch just blew my mind,” he enthuses. “When you’re standing there watching the shuttle take off and thinking, ‘This is going into outer space,’ you instantly become 12 years old again.”

Source: University of British Columbia