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MSU Students Bring Zero G Research Home
HOUSTON -- Mississippi State University students learned the difficulties of conducting research in a zero gravity environment after a mid-March flight on NASA's reduced gravity aircraft.
The nine animal and dairy science students and their advisor devised an experiment to determine how a particular enzyme reacts in micro gravity. They worked with the firefly enzyme luciferase and compared its reaction in zero gravity to its reaction in Earth gravity. They used a luminometer to record the flash of light that signaled each reaction.
Six members of the student team spent two weeks in Houston, Texas at Johnson Space Center and NASA's Ellington Field training for the zero gravity flights, learning about NASA and preparing their experiment. NASA flew the experiment March 17 and 18, each with two students.
"We got 11 experiments conducted over the two flights," said Dr. Scott Willard, team advisor and reproductive physiologist with MSU's animal and dairy science department. "The first day we had some mechanical problems with the printer and other problems like motion sickness among the flight personnel. But we got good data the second day."
Stacy Lawrence was the team leader and is a junior pre- veterinary major from Meridian. She flew both flights with the experiment and said zero gravity was unlike anything she anticipated.
"The feeling of weightlessness was one of the most amazing experiences of my life," Lawrence said. "You don't exactly know what to expect and you just start floating unless you're tied down."
Lawrence found the successful experiment runs equally exciting. After the first day's trouble, she said she was relieved when they were able to run the experiment 10 times the next day.
NASA's KC-135 aircraft flies a roller coaster-like path known as a parabola to achieve a weightless environment. The flight path creates a 2-G environment while it gains altitude, then goes to zero gravity while it tops the maneuver and starts down the other side. Each parabola offers an approximate 23- second period of weightlessness.
A serious challenge to conducting the experiment was getting the reaction to occur in the limited time of zero gravity. Another challenge was the motion sickness many fliers experience that can impair their ability to perform.
The team has yet to analyze the data they collected, but preliminary results appear to have raised more questions that they hope to answer in other experiments. Their experiment on this enzyme's reaction in zero gravity is important for two reasons.
"Every cell in the human body has enzymes," Willard said. "By learning more about this reaction, we have a better indication of how micro gravity affects human, animal or plant cells."
Another application for this research involves this enzyme's use as a reporter in genetic research. The luciferase enzyme can be fused to a particular region of a gene so that when the gene is activated, it produces the flash of light.
"This is a system that could potentially be used on the space shuttle or International Space Station to do life sciences research," Willard said.
MSU's research has already created some interest outside the university. Willard said one of NASA's flight doctors saw the potential impact of this research and requested the results once they are compiled.
Dawn Tucker, an MSU pre-veterinary student from Columbus, was part of the team's ground crew. She commented on the tremendous learning opportunity given students as they undertook their own experiments and learned from each other.
"It was interesting to be at the NASA facility and see how engineering, physics and life sciences all tie together," Tucker said.
In addition to Willard, Tucker and Lawrence, the team is composed of Kimberly Bowie Cuny from Kosciusko, Jennifer Spencer from Tunica, Jeremy Maness from Raleigh, Heather Chrestman from Pontotoc, Paul Storment from Golden, Kirsten Holt from Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Charlotte Rose from Starkville.
Funding for this combined teaching and research effort with NASA was provided by MSU's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Contact: Dr. Scott Willard, (662) 325-0040