British scientists flying an experiment on the United States space shuttle Columbia say that their nascent subject, microgravity research, could die a quick death when the shuttle lands today.
Their research can only be done under conditions of weightlessness. But United Kingdom subscriptions to the European programme that enables them to take part in microgravity research are about to end. No funding is forthcoming from government departments, the research councils or industry.
The scientists, Naomi Chayen, research fellow in biophysics at Imperial College London and John Helliwell, professor of structural chemistry at Manchester University, are growing protein crystals on the shuttle flight. This is a development of the quest to grow perfect protein crystals, necessary in order to work out the structure of numerous vital proteins such as body enzymes, industrial catalysts and cancer therapies.
Scientists use X-ray crystallography, among other techniques, to understand protein structure. This technique was important in deciphering the structure of DNA earlier this century. The bottleneck is growing as perfect a crystal as possible, so that the X-rays record its ideal structure rather than some deformity.
Gravity pulls at crystals as they grow and also encourages bits of dirt to settle on them, seeding new, asymmetrical growths. In space this should not happen.
Professor Helliwell said: "Microgravity is a medium that affects fluid physics in a way that affects all crystallisation methods so it is worth looking at."
Microgravity research is only about a decade old and has suffered because it received an overblown press, particularly from Nasa in the United States when it first started, said Dr Chayen. Industry was persuaded to fly experiments and when these did not work out as planned it lost interest, said Professor Helliwell. But protein crystallisation is still in its basic science stage and needs basic funding.
The Department of Trade and Industry contributes at the moment to Emir-1, the European Space Agency's microgravity research programme. But the programme is ending and researchers have found no one to contribute to Emir-2 although some say the cost could be just Pounds 1 million over five years.
But the losses reach further than such basic science, says Heinz Wolff of Brunel University. The technology surrounding microgravity research, in particular technology devoted to sustaining astronauts in space, leads to research and development contracts for institutes and industry as well as spin-offs for areas of research such as ecology. To win contracts from ESA, a country must be subscribing to the programme.
Professor Wolff has worked on space farms to sustain humans in space. Self-sufficiency is the biggest constraint. Scientists have, for example, developed a way of collecting the carbon dioxide in human exhaled breath and giving it to algae which convert it to sugars that can make a drink for the astronauts.
Professor Wolff has also tackled the problem of cleaning a space station without using polluting cleaners. He has worked particularly with hydrogen peroxide, which breaks down into harmless water and oxygen and could be made more use of on earth, he says.
Last week Ian Taylor, science minister, offered one possible ray of hope for microgravity research, suggesting that there might be Technology Foresight funding.