Cell & Molecular Biology Program

What We Study

Cells respond to changes in their environment through a variety of different mechanisms.  An example of such a mechanism is the triggering of a stress response which often requires changing the expression of specific genes. Genes can be activated and/or deactivated by cellular molecules known as transcription factors, which bind to specific regions of the cell’s DNA and initiate transcription of the DNA’s sequence into RNA. Alternatively, cells may respond to environmental stimuli by increasing or decreasing the types and amounts of protein they produce, or by raising or lowering their metabolic rates. Such cellular responses usually don’t happen in isolation but are often influenced by the responses of neighboring cells, whether they are microbes grown in a culture, or plant cells in a root tip. This makes understanding how cells communicate with each other within a culture or in a complex tissue an important aspect of cell and molecular biology studies.

For more than 40 years, investigations have been conducted to understand how cells and cell systems respond to the spaceflight environment. Most of these early studies concentrated on characterizing the functional and morphological changes that occurred at the cellular level in multicellular organisms. The development of modern molecular biology tools, however, has allowed for a greater understanding of underlying molecule mechanisms, i.e. how cells signal to each other in the presence of microgravity, and how cell changes aid adaptation to the space flight environment. The combination of cellular and molecular biology studies, therefore, has provided a wealth of information regarding the biological effects of spaceflight that cuts across microbial, plant, and animal biology.

Below are a few examples of Molecular and Cell Biology research Space Biology is working with or interested in:

Molecular Biology: Understanding the Big Picture Requires Focusing on the Small

Changes in the numbers, types, and even structures of the molecules present within cells can profoundly affect how an organism, as a whole, responds to external stimuli, including exposure to spaceflight. Space Biology, therefore, funds and conducts research that identifies and characterizes these molecular changes. This includes studies designed to determine how spaceflight alters gene expression at the levels of RNA, protein, and metabolite production in different cell types and tissues, and how these changes impact the organism’s overall health. This also includes investigations that characterize how DNA function, structure, damage, and repair are impacted by spaceflight, and whether spaceflight exposure leads to permanent changes in DNA that can be passed on to the next generation of organisms.

Cell Signaling: Does spaceflight impact cellular communication?

Space Biology funds research that studies cells in both 2-D and 3-D cultures to characterize their interactions, including cell-to-cell contact, intercellular signaling pathways, and cellular trafficking. The findings from these investigations lead to whole-tissue and organ studies followed by tissue-to-tissue and organ-to-organ interactions. What is discovered through this research has the potential to help us build a picture of the biological state of the whole organism and leads to understanding the impact of the space environment as it affects physiological response, acclimation, and dysfunction.

Cellular Differentiation and Function 

With some exceptions, all the cells in a complex organism have the same DNA. That means that a bone cell within an animal contains the same genetic blueprint as one of its skin cells or neurons (nerve cells). Carefully regulated turning on and off of specific genes in these cells during development makes sure that a skin cell functions properly as a skin cell, and not as a bone cell, muscle cell, or any other type of cell. Therefore, while all cell types in a complex organism contain the same genes, these cells differ in the genes that they express, and the timing of their expression. Space Biology therefore supports research that answers the questions of how the space environment affects stem cell function and differentiation as well as how these changes affect normal tissue function, regeneration, and development.

GeneLab: Omics data available for all

The experiments we conduct generate enormous amounts of omics data describing cellular and molecular changes induced by spaceflight. These will be archived in the GeneLab database for open science, accessible by the general scientific, commercial, and public communities.

The GeneLab Data System is NASA’s open-access, on-line searchable data repository for Space Biology experiment results. The data collected in the GeneLab data system cuts across multiple biological/biomedical science disciplines and areas of research emphases to address fundamental biology hypotheses and to enable translational biology relevant for commercial biotechnology and pharmaceutical applications. The GeneLab website link to the data repository allows access to all of the collected data by species and space flight missions, as well as a process for submitting datasets to the repository. The GeneLab data repository also includes important metadata related to the spaceflight and ground-based experiments, which is of critical importance for researchers if they are to accurately interpret and analyze these data for their own specific investigations.