Sidereal Messenger: Study from Brazil to investigate Sars-CoV-2 protein in space


Brazilian researchers are going to promote the study, in space, of an essential protein of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid. The experiment will have a stage to be conducted on the International Space Station (ISS), and the results may help to illuminate paths in the search for new treatments and vaccines.

The project was conceived by the team from LNBio (National Biosciences Laboratory), which is part of CNPEM (National Center for Research in Energy and Materials), in Campinas (SP). The financing, in turn, will be promoted by pharmaceutical company Cimed, with support from the space logistics company Airvantis. The study is part of a five-year initiative called Cimed X, which will invest R$300 million in research and development of new products, including experiments in space.

The material will be sent to the ISS on SpaceX’s Dragon CRS-24 freighter mission, which is due to depart Cape Canaveral, Florida, on December 21, 2021. The research material will be handled in Jaxa’s Kibo laboratory module (Japanese space agency). ).

Three different experimental setups will be sent, all containing the N protein (nucleocapsid) of Sars-CoV-2. Much attention has been paid to protein S (from “spike”, or spike), which plays a key role in the pathogen’s ability to infect human cells. However, other proteins also play an important role, such as N, which is critical for packaging the virus’s genome. Its structure, however, has yet to be elucidated, and researchers are betting that the microgravity environment of the orbital complex could help.

The goal is to achieve crystallization of the protein in orbit and then bring the formed crystal back to Earth for study. “In this first stage, we will send purified protein N together with three different crystallization solutions”, explains Celso Eduardo Benedetti, a researcher at LNBio and coordinator of the study. “The idea here is to have more than one protein N crystallization condition to increase the chances of obtaining crystals.”

If successful, the crystals formed will be brought back for analysis by X-ray diffraction, in the new synchrotron beam line Manacá do Sírius, a Brazilian particle accelerator inaugurated in 2018 and operated by LNLS (National Synchrotron Light Laboratory), also part of the CNPEM. Observing how X-rays are deflected by the crystals helps decipher the exact shape of the protein.

Attempts to make good crystallization of protein N on Earth have so far failed. But in space, in an imponderable condition, it is possible to obtain better results. “The fact is that the conditions of crystallization in microgravity can favor the formation of crystals that diffract at a higher resolution than the crystals obtained here in soil, and this improves the quality of the experimental data and, consequently, the resolution of the generated atomic model”, he explains Benedetti.

This column is published on Mondays in Folha Corrida.

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