Monday, February 8, 2010

Broward College engineering club

This semester, I have decided to participate in Broward College's engineering club. Each semester, Professor Rolando Branly gathers a group of students from the Physics classes and labs he teaches to work on an engineering project. Last semester, he and his group built a mockup capsule for low-gravity research in cooperation with Masten Space Systems. This semester, we have a more concrete project.

Professor Branly is working on securing a slot on the last shuttle mission for our experiment. We will be attempting to crystallize proteins in space!

The plan

Of course, the process begins long before the shuttle launches and ends long after. Here's a brief summary of the process.

Choose target proteins
Professor Branly has already narrowed our options down to a few proteins related to metabolism and diabetes research, but we still have a couple options. PPAR gamma is our leading choice.
Manufacture proteins
Once we've found a protein of interest, we need to acquire enough with which to work. Hopefully, we will be able to outsource this step to the chemistry/biology department, but if not, we'll need to genetically engineer a colony of E. coli bacteria to churn out our protein. Then, we must isolate the protein from the bacterial solution.
Crystallize proteins
This promises to be the most difficult and complicated step. We plan to send the proteins to the International Space Station on the last Shuttle flight, let them crystallize in anti-gravity for about two weeks, and retrieve them on the return flight of the Shuttle. Unfortunately, protein crystallization is a developing art known to few and mastered by none — Professor Branly calls it a "black art." We'll test many different solutions and methods here on Earth to try to find the perfect setup.
Shoot x-rays at our protein crystals
If we can successfully crystallize some proteins, we will analyze the crystals through a process called x-ray crystallography. In brief, we will shoot a laser of x-rays at a rotating protein crystal and record the diffraction pattern of the x-rays. I'm not sure whether we will be imaging the crystals ourselves or sending them off to a specialized facility for examination.
Analyze diffraction patterns
Finally, we're going to analyze the x-ray patterns with crystallography software. We'll use either Phenix or CCP4 to convert the patterns of x-ray dots into 3D models of the crystallized proteins. These models will allow drug companies to create molecules that can enhance or inhibit the functioning of the proteins in human cells.

Engineering club information

If you want to join the club or help us with our project, you can join our Facebook group, email our coordinator, Professor Branly, or visit our new website, We'll need all the help we can get!