JOHN DAY — Five Grant Union sophomores were glad to learn a space experiment they’re conducting made a successful landing on Earth after a few weeks in space.
The group, sophomores Zack Deiter, Elijah Humbird, Duane Stokes, Dante Valentine and Cauy Weaver and teacher Sonna Smith, experienced setbacks along the way but finally opened their package from space at the school May 25.
They’ve been testing the materials the past week in the Grant Union science lab using biotechnology equipment, comparing the protein (a three-dimensional structure of green fluorescent protein in E. Coli) sent to space with the same mixture stored at the school.
Their findings could show if micro-gravity contributes to or diminishes the misfolding of protein, which could help prevent long-term health problems for astronauts or provide new treatment pathways in the future.
Testing they’ve conducted so far shows growth of the protein sent to space.
“We know the protein we are testing grew in space,” Smith said. “That’s what the glowing tells us, but we still don’t know how much misfolding happened.”
She said they’re hopeful initial tests they work on this week will quantify their results.
The students and teacher gained the unique research opportunity through a Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) contest, entering and winning their freshman year at Grant Union in the fall of 2014.
Aboard the SpaceX CRS-7, their project reached the International Space Station on April 11 this year.
Astronauts there worked on 19 SSEP Mission 7 students’ experiments and sent them back May 9. The Grant Union project was the only experiment from Oregon on the mission.
Unfortunately, the local students’ experiment was opened earlier than planned in space, but they and Smith believe the outcome will still produce valuable results.
“I’m happy that it made it to space and back,” said Valentine. “There may be a happy accident.”
The first two launches of the space-bound projects exploded shortly after take off, and this is why the results have taken a year and half to reach a conclusion.
“I was pretty happy that it didn’t explode,” said Humbird. “It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve learned about proteins and how they can fold, and I’m excited to see our results.”
Weaver said the group learned how proteins can misfold and cause diseases.
Their research could point to ways to help with diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, cystic fibrosis and many other disorders.
If their findings result in clues to unlock those mysteries, Smith said it’s possible a research scientist could take the experiment further.
“I hope to help in some way figure out if this is a problem with astronauts or not,” Stokes said.
“It was fun learning experience,” Deiter added. “I’m happy it’s back to be able to finish it.”
The students will continue testing the protein this week and said the next test will show if the proteins fold better in micro-gravity. Testing could continue after the school year ends.
The boys may have grown a foot since the experimenting first began. They’ve also gained knowledge, Smith said.
“You can’t get more real than this,” she said. “The delays — these are the type of things that happen in research. It’s kept these five gentleman really interested in science.”