The biochemist, Professor Volker A. Erdmann, of Freie Universität Berlin has sent samples containing 50 different ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules into space aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket TMA-16. The samples were due to return to Earth on October 10. The aim of the space mission was to make the ribonucleic acids crystallize in weightlessness. Using this method the scientists can learn more about the structure and function of the RNA molecules that control what happens in a cell. With this knowledge, scientists hope to develop variants of RNA molecules with improved biological properties that can be used to combat malignancy or viral infection by targeting and eliminating diseased cells.
Thanks to cooperation with the NASA astronaut and university professor, Dr. Larry DeLuca, Professor Volker A. Erdmann sent the samples to the International Space Station (ISS) approximately 350 kilometers away from the Earth. The crystallized RNA molecules are to be picked up from Moscow on October 12, to be subsequently measured at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg with the help of X-ray structure analysis.
Twenty years ago Volker A. Erdmann together with Heinz-Günter Wittmann and Ada Jonath, who a few days ago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, laid the basis for exploring the structure of ribosomes. They were the first to crystallize ribosomes and, using the X-ray structure analysis, sorted the approximately 300,000 atoms in a three-dimensional space. Ribosomes, the protein factories of the cell, consist of proteins and RNA molecules that not only bind the proteins, but also have the catalytic properties to produce the proteins from 20 different building blocks.
Volker A. Erdmann and his team expect that the structural analysis of RNA samples will contribute to a better understanding of the function of ribosomes and that the results will be incorporated into molecular medicine.
In 1998 Erdmann founded the RNA Network that, since then, has been funded with 60 million euros from the Berlin Senate, the Federal Ministry for Education and Research, and partners from industry. More than 25 research groups of universities in Berlin, Max Planck Institutes, and other non-university institutions and companies are involved in the RNA network.