Space Station Shrinks Fluorescence Microscopy Tool

FLUMIAS team members install the 3D fluorescence microscope that will allow live-cell imaging in microgravity into Payload Card-8 of the TangoLab in preparation for launch aboard the SpaceX Dragon last month. (Credit: DLR)

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — Honey, I shrunk the microscope! A miniaturized fluorescence microscope makes it possible to observe changes in living cells in microgravity. Future observations of astronauts’ cells could tell scientists important information about how the body adapts to space.

“An astronaut’s physiology changes during long duration spaceflight because of the lack of gravity,” said Principal Investigator Oliver Ullrich, University of Magdeburg. “Knowing the molecular basis of this cellular response to altered gravity is key for risk management, monitoring, and development of countermeasures for future long-term space exploration. Cellular adaptation to the microgravity environment can only be studied and understood in dynamic or live measurements. Live imaging experiments in space are a crucial contribution to the understanding of cellular adaptation to microgravity.”

An investigation aboard the International Space Station will demonstrate this new technology. FLUMIAS-DEA observes samples of fixed cells and live cells using a modified, patented illumination technique that contributes to the microscope’s smaller size and reduced technical complexity.

“The dimensions of FLUMIAS-DEA can be accommodated in the volume of seven cubes inside the Space Tango TangoLab,” said investigator Rainer Treichel of Airbus Defence and Space, which operates the investigation for the German Space Agency (DLR). “At the beginning of its development, it was not clear whether this could be accomplished. Standard laboratory microscopes with comparable capabilities typically take up the space of a full-sized writing desk.”

FLUMIAS-DEA miniaturized fluorescence microscope loaded in TangoLab 2. (Credit: Airbus)

Fluorescence microscopy is a key tool in biological and medical science, used to visualize the spatial structure of cells and tissues. The technique applies an array of fluorochromes, or stains that respond to different wavelengths of irradiated light, to a specimen. The fluorescence microscope then irradiates the specimen with specific wavelengths to separate the signals of the stains. This makes it possible to identify specific cells and sub-microscopic cellular components. Using fluorescence microscopy to observe living cells provides insights into dynamic cellular processes such as the transport of proteins within and between cells, cytoskeleton rearrangement, and ion flux, such as the flow of calcium ions into and out of a cell. High-resolution microscopes document these processes over time and in 3D.

Image of fixed macrophages using three chromophores created by the FLUMIAS-DEA miniaturized fluorescence microscope during Science Verification Test. (Credit: Airbus)

This tool for 3D imaging of biological samples has many applications for research on the space station.

The FLUMIAS-DEA investigation is meant to pave the way for the use of fluorescence microscopy for more complex biological studies in space. A next-generation facility, called FLUMIAS-ISS, is currently in development for potential flight as early as 2020. It will enable investigation of inner cellular processes of mammalian and plant cells under variable artificial gravity levels between microgravity and 1 g.

A compact fluorescence microscope capable of providing 3D imaging of biological samples has potential applications on Earth, making it possible to use this valuable technology in remote environments and disaster situations.

This microscope might have shrunk, but there is nothing small about its potential.

This investigation was sponsored by the ISS National Lab, which is managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).