Project Overview


Proposal Title:  A Study of How Microgravity Affects the Activity of Enzymes in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Using the Model of Papain and Gelatin
Co-Principal Investigators: Robert Edmiston, Jaclyn Martin, Luke Redito, Harshit Saini, Sanju Vardhan
Co-Investigators: Genna Owen, Carissa Sage, Hannah Schroeter
Collaborators: Rashad Abdulla, Varun Bansal, Caleb Bryant, Olivia Escandell, Dave Foster, Anuj Mehindru, Krunal Patel

Proposal Summary:

A teacher at West Shore Junior/Senior High School, Jason Whitworth, was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in the fall of 2011. The team wanted to investigate ALS, raise awareness of the disease, and help patients suffering from ALS in their fight against this cruel degenerative disease.


Glutamate is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter. The amount of glutamate that humans need is miniscule and is already manufactured by the body or obtained in whole foods. In the synaptic cleft between motor neurons, glutamate is normally deactivated and recycled by enzymes. In ALS patients, glutamate does not get broken down, but builds up to toxic levels, and eventually causes the neurons to die. As the neurons die, ALS patients lose control of voluntary muscles.


The experiment served as a model of the enzymatic breakdown of glutamate in the synapse.  Because the actual systems required conditions not available to us on the International Space Station (ISS), a non-biological model was chosen. The experiment tested the effect of the enzyme papain (papaya extract) on the breakdown of proteins in gelatin by measuring the amount of protein remaining after the reaction. The aim of this experiment was to test the ability of an enzyme to function in microgravity. It was the team's hypothesis that the enzyme would be able to function more effectively in a microgravity environment.

The same experiment was conducted both on Earth and aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The papain and gelatin were allowed to react for 3 days, 3 hours, and 59 minutes.  The reactions were then terminated and the sample aboard the ISS was returned to Earth for analysis.  A Biuret protein assay was performed on the samples and a spectrophotometer was used to determine the amount of remaining protein by measuring the absorption levels for each sample.

The data supported the team's hypothesis that the enzymatic breakdown of the protein would be more efficient in a microgravity environment.  According to ANOVA statistical analysis, the difference between the two groups was significant (the ISS sample was ~40% more efficient at breaking down the protein than the samples here on Earth.  For results to be considered significant, the P-value should be less than 0.05.  Our calculated P-value of 10-8 means that if this experiment was repeated, researchers would have a 99.999993% chance of getting very similar results.

More links to see on ISS: Project Whitworth