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High-Quality Crystallization Facility: GCF


To prepare for the full-scale use of Kibo, the Japanese Experimental Module (JEM) that will be attached to the International Space Station (ISS), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will perform a series of six experiments in space from 2003 through 2005 biannually. These experiments grow protein crystals aboard the Service Module of the ISS.

JAXA is conducting this project in cooperation with research organizations and universities that analyze the structures and functions of proteins as part of a national project. It is also working with private-sector companies that seek to create genome-based pharmaceuticals. It is difficult to grow good single crystals of proteins on the ground that are suitable for more precise analyses.In such cases, crystal growth experiments will be conducted in a space environment. Afterward, the protein structures and functions will be analyzed on the ground, and the results will be utilized in practical applications.

With the support of RSC Energia Co., Ltd., of Russia, this experiment facility(GCF) is launched into space aboard a Progress supply ship from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. When the GCF reaches the ISS, it is installed inside the Service Module where it is used to grow protein crystals for two to four months. The GCF is then loaded onto a Soyuz bound for Kazakhstan.

The protein crystals in the GCF are shipped to Japan, where they are divided among various contracted research groups. They obtain data needed for structural analyses, assess the quality of the crystals, and analyze the three-dimensional structure of the protein.

 General Description

The High-Quality Crystallization Project utilizes the Granada Crystallization Facility (GCF) developed jointly by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Granada University in Spain, and the JAXA Crystallization Facility (JCF) developed by JAXA. GCF and JCF contain 23 Granada Crystallization Boxes (GCBs) at maximum and a temperature data logger.

Proteins are crystallized in space inside an incubator on board the Service Module. When samples are returned to the ground by Soyuz, insulators wrapped around the GCF and JCF, a thermos-like container, isolate the crystallization inside GCBs from fluctuations of ambient temperature.

One GCB has up to 11 capillaries, so 11 different protein crystallization experiments at maximum can be conducted at the same time.

 Crystallization method

GCB adopts the counter diffusion method that promotes diffusion of protein solutions and crystallization agent solutions in opposite directions inside capillaries through a gel layer. Protein solution diffuses outward; agent solution diffuses inward. This forms a slope of the two concentrations, and crystallization starts at the point and time where the two concentrations meet the optimum condition for crystallization.

The tube, filled with gel and fitted to the bottom of the capillary, moderates the diffusion velocity.

 Results of the Space Experiments #1 ~ #3

Through the first, second and third space experiments, JAXA launched proteins of alpha-amylase and lysozyme to validate the developed crystallization technique. As a result, high-quality protein crystals with the best resolutions in the world were successfully obtained, and the structure was analyzed closely and carefully.

In some of the proteins (e.g., sleeping and allergy material synthetase, and proteins related to symptoms of parasite infection) provided by user organizations, we also obtained the highest resolution data from the fine protein crystal grown in space; this is expected to lead to pharmaceutical development in the future.

Data obtained at SPring-8 BL12B2
Crystallized in Space Crystallized on the Ground
Crystals of alpha-amylase and electron density map (in process)

Last Updated : February 9, 2005 

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