University of Pittsburgh
October 25, 1998


Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH, Oct. 26 -- When John Glenn and the Space Shuttle Discovery reach orbit, shortly following the scheduled Oct. 29 launch from Kennedy Space Center, one of the first operations to take place is the initiation of a University of Pittsburgh biological sciences experiment.

Mission specialist Pedro Duque is currently scheduled to set in motion the Pitt protein crystallization experiment with Glenn serving as his back-up. The research is designed to provide scientists with a variety of crystals grown in microgravity. The crystals will be returned to Pitt for visualization analysis by X-ray diffraction. "This is one of the first tasks for the crew after they settle into orbit," said John Rosenberg of the Department of Biological Sciences. "The experiment actually runs for the duration of the shuttle flight, and the longer it runs the better, so we want it to start as soon as possible after launch."

These experiments are the first stage in ongoing efforts to visualize the atomic structure of protein molecules. This is important because the structural knowledge helps Rosenberg and his colleagues understand how these molecules work in living cells. "This is basic research. We crystallize proteins in space because it has been seen that a micro-gravity environment often yields crystals that are better ordered, and that translates into better image quality from our X-ray diffraction," said Rosenberg. "It's part of a larger national effort organized by Pitt alumnus Daniel Carter, president of New Century Pharmaceuticals, with the eventual goal of enhanced drug discovery."

In fact, the Pitt connections go even further. These crystallization experiments take place in a module owned by Spacehab Corp., a Virginia-based company that leases research space on shuttle missions, co-founded by Pitt chemistry alumnus David Rossi.

Pitt scientists will be looking at four specific protein structures with the unusual sounding names EcoRI endonuclease, GroEL, BiP, and RepC. Rosenberg is studying EcoRI endonuclease, a gene-splicing enzyme. Rosenberg and Roger Hendrix, of biological sciences, are studying GroEL, a protein that assists other proteins to "fold up" into their final shape after they are made in a cell. Collaborating with Jeff Brodsky, also of biological sciences, Rosenberg is looking at a similar protein, BiP. Along with Saleem Khan, of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry in the School of Medicine, Rosenberg hopes to better understand RepC, a protein involved in the replication of DNA. Working in the design and preparation of the experiments are research assistant Melissa Martowicz, graduate student Andrew Petersen and undergraduate student Monica Horvath.

Even though Rosenberg's group has flown experiments on previous shuttle missions and on the Russian space station Mir, he says it's still a thrill. "It's always an exciting time as we near launch," he said. "We put months of work into being ready, so if anything, it gets more exciting each time we do it. Of course, with John Glenn on board, this mission will get a lot of attention, and the potential of having him involved is very exciting as well."