As I type this, the BRIC-17 plant biology experiments are in microgravity, orbiting the earth on the International Space Station. BRICs A and B contain plant cell cultures from the University of Florida, BRICs C and D contain our Arabidopsis seedlings for the Gilroy Lab TOAST experiment from the University of Wisconsin.
NASA has been fantastic about keeping us updated via email as to the astronaut’s on-orbit activities concerning our BRIC-17 experiments. A few minutes ago, we just received an email from NASA:
> I bring to you more good news. This morning, on-orbit, Dr. Simon Gilroy’s
> Canisters C and D successfully actuated at approximately 7:57AM Eastern.
> Also, earlier Canisters A and B were transferred into MELFI 1, Dewar 3 at
> approximately 3:50AM Eastern.
This report means that the fixative solution (RNAlater) was successfully injected by astronaut Marshburn into our 10 petri plates containing our microgravity-grown seedlings. We are glad to hear that all went well with the fixative injection because a test of the BRICs a week before launch indicated there could be issues with actuation. After a day at room temperature to allow the fixative to work, our two BRICs will be placed into the MELFI (Minus Eighty-degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS) by space station commander astronaut Ford until they can be packed into a cold bag for the return trip to Earth in the SpaceX Dragon capsule (which is still docked to the space station).
A minus-eighty freezer is standard equipment required for most life science research. The Gilroy Lab has an upright minus-eighty in the hallway just outside of our lab to store our bacteria stocks, concentrated solutions, some dry chemicals, and frozen samples. It is heavy, has a loud compressor, a huge footprint, and is an energy hog; all these things would cause problems on the ISS. I was curious to see what the ISS minus-eighty freezer was like. Needless to say the MELFI is a high-tech marvel of engineering, if you want to read more about it NASA has a good description of the MELFI.
Our BRICs need a minimum of 4 days in the MELFI to be sure that they are completely chilled down for packing into the cold bag. When the Dragon capsule had a delay in docking just over a week ago, there was some concern that if berthing was more than a couple days late then our BRICs would not have enough time in the MELFI at the end of the experiment. This would’ve necessitated cutting our experiment by a day, which means one less day of growth in microgravity and thus smaller plants. The good thing is that even such a long delay would’ve required only minimal adaptation to our experimental design. We simply would’ve analysed smaller plants, perhaps combining shoot and root for the RNA isolation instead of separating the tissue for analysis. Luckily, docking was delayed by only a day so our plants were able to grow for 8 days in microgravity as originally planned.