Space Crystals Could Save Victims of Chemical Warfare on Earth

Scientists leverage microgravity to confront one of the world’s most dangerous poisons.
July 24, 2017, 11:00am
Image: NASA

Organophosphates (OPs) are among the world's most dangerous and widespread poisons. They block a muscle-relaxing enzyme in the brains of humans and wildlife, which results in paralysis and death.

OPs are often used in nerve agents like sarin gas, which has been deployed in the Syrian civil war. This, along with the Trump administration's move to retract bans on OP-based pesticides linked to brain damage in children, has unfortunately made these toxins topical recently.

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But it's not all grim: Scientists are actively developing better antidotes to treat OP poisoning—with the help of crystals grown onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The station's microgravity environment allows crystalline structures to grow with fewer imperfections than on the Earth's surface, so space-grown crystals have properties that would be impossible to produce in gravity-bound ground laboratories. Growing crystals on the space station has previously been used to research Huntington's Disease and radiation-detection equipment.

Read More: How Space Crystals Are Helping Researchers Treat a Genetic Disorder

The ISS provides a perfect platform for growing uniform samples of pure crystalline acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme in humans (and other animals) that is targeted and inhibited by OPs, leading to the poison's life-threatening side effects. The crystals are being grown as a part of Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats (CounterACT), a National Institutes of Health initiative that aims to improve medical outcomes for victims of chemical attacks.

The experiment arrived at the station aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule in June, and the ISS crew is currently nurturing a batch of large crystals in orbit. Once completed, the experiment will be sent back to Earth where CounterACT scientists like Andrey Kovalevsky, a crystallographer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will image the space crystals in atomic-level detail. Studying how these enzymic materials respond to deadly OPs can help Kovalevsky and his team to figure out the best way to break those bonds with an artificial antidote.

"Hundreds of thousands of people die in the world every year from organophosphate poisoning," Kovalevsky said in the above video describing the experiment. "Once we get the protein structure we can design better, faster-acting antidotes that can be used against pesticide and nerve agent poisoning."

Given the devastating impacts of OP poisoning, combined with the rise of these toxins in warfare and in the environment, these experiments are a humanitarian necessity. The fact that they also involve sending crystals to an outer space habitat that orbits Earth at around 17,000 miles per hour is just an added mind-boggling bonus.

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