Durham VA Health Care System investigators Tim Hammond, Holly Birdsall, and Pat Allen have just finished loading a science experiment on the rocket for the NASA Artemis 1 mission, due to launch on August 29, 2022. This study is funded by a NASA grant administered by the Institute for Medical Research.

The Durham-based team has a dual purpose in flying Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a green algae, which was chosen for the ease of engineering molecular changes in its genes. Cosmic radiation could allow better study of how radiation damages cells, and how cellular mechanisms attempt to repair the damage. The data generated will contribute to the understanding of how to make cancer radiation therapy more effective, in Veterans who may benefit from this type of treatment.

In contrast, NASA has interest in these algae, as they produce two products of great interest to space travel – lipids as a source of bioproducts and hydrogen a source of fuel. The experiment being flown contains a series of genetically engineered algae, where each strain has a single gene knocked out. This approach identifies the strains that confer best survivability in the high-energy cosmic radiation beyond the Van Allen Belt.  These ‘radiation and space-hardy’ strains can then be crossed with high hydrogen producing strains to generate a strain with the optimum ability to both fly to distant sites and generate hydrogen to fuel return missions.