Discovery Magazine

Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life (SABOL)

Study of self-organizing processes such as protein aggregation and Amyloid fiber formation will greatly benefit from experiments conducted in the weightless environment afforded by the International Space Station (ISS). A new Nanolab Module, which is a 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm mini-laboratories, will allow for flexible and low-cost experiments to be conducted on the ISS. In ground-based experiments, as self-organizing fibers grow larger, gravitational settling removes them form solution, halting growth and creating a tangled network of fibers in the bottom of the growth container. In weightlessness, the growth process will proceed for much longer possibly allowing the assembly of more complex tertiary structures consisting of multiple fibers wrapped in helical form around each other as will occur within the Nanolab Module.

This will benefit origin of life research in that it will lead to further development in the science of self-organizing processes and in particular, processes associated with biological molecules. It will benefit research into the cause and cure of several neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer’s disease. Postmortem studies of the neurons taken from victims of Alzheimer’s disease show an accumulation of Amyloid fibers composed of either Tau proteins or Amyloid-β. Both Tau and Amyloid-β have been shown to self-organize in solution through colloidal interactions in the same way as lysozyme. It is not clear whether amyloid deposits are the cause or a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease or whether they will form in vivo the same way they form in vitro, but it is clear that a complete understanding the colloidal formation will greatly benefit neurodegenerative disease research.

One significant outcome of this project will be the development of a small automated NanoLab Module laboratory for the study of self-organizing processes; this Nanolab Module can be shared with other investigators in the future. This will enable the expansion of several areas in self-organization research to take advantage of weightlessness conditions by providing more access on a shorter timescale than is currently possible. The NanoLab Module under development is versatile enough to handle numerous materials and experimental protocols and it can be easily duplicated.