It sounds crazy, but NASA is seriously growing space crystals to help make better drugs

Crystals grow differently in space than they do on Earth, and astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) have been tasked with finding out why. In a series of experiments, the ISS scientists will try to determine why crystals often have fewer imperfections and bigger sizes when grown in microgravity, research that may help accelerate drug development here on Earth.

In order to efficiently design drugs, chemists must first understand the structure of the proteins the drugs are intended to interact with. The problem is that proteins are tiny and have to be crystallized to reveal their 3D blueprint. By growing higher-quality crystals in space, researchers may be able to unravel the complexities of some of these proteins and adapt their crystal-growing methods to create better blueprints.

Scientists are unsure why crystals grow with fewer imperfections in outer space, though most theories attribute the quality to slower growth. One of the ISS experiments (The Effect of Macromolecular Transport on Microgravity Protein Crystallization — or LMM Biophysics 1) will investigate these theories.

The other experiment (Growth Rate Dispersion as a Predictive Indicator for Biological Crystal Samples Where Quality Can be Improved with Microgravity Growth — or LMM Biophysics 3) will try to discern which crystals are best grown in space, since past research has shown that only certain proteins benefit from microgravity.

“Some proteins are like building blocks,” Edward Snell, LMM Biophysics 3 primary investigator, said in a press release. “It’s very easy to stack them. Those are the ones that won’t benefit from microgravity. Others are like jelly beans. When you try and build a nice array of them on the ground, they want to roll away and not be ordered. Those are the ones that benefit from microgravity. What we’re trying to do is distinguish the blocks from the jelly beans.”

By distinguishing blocks from jelly beans and determining why microgravity effects growth, the hope is that these ISS experiments will accelerate drug discovery by allowing for better protein mapping.