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18 April 2017

NASA-funded Student Project Tests Anti-freeze Polymers at Stratospheric Altitude

As part of a NASA-funded project carried out by students in North Carolina, specially-developed anti-freeze polymers designed by Professor Matthew Gibson’s lab in the Department of Chemistry at Warwick Medical School in the UK were sent high into the atmosphere in order to test their performance in extreme cold.

The project involved sending a balloon loaded with blood and algae samples 87,468 feet straight up into the stratosphere, along with equipment tasked with collecting data including compass readings, temperature, altitude, and barometric pressure. Some of these samples were mixed with the anti-freeze polymers, whilst others were not, in order to ascertain how effective the polymers actually are at preventing freezing in biological samples at the low temperatures experienced at such an altitude. The protein-inspired polymers have been specifically designed to slow the rate of ice growth, thereby protecting treated samples from the resulting damage caused by crystallisation within and around the cells.

The project ultimately turned out to be a success, with all treated samples escaping harm. The samples not containing the polymer were all destroyed in the process, further demonstrating the effectiveness of the anti-freeze agent.

The research carried out by Professor Gibson’s team, who is himself considered to be a leading international authority on anti-freeze protein mimetics, focuses on how natural anti-freeze proteins can be used to develop new compounds to improve cell and tissue storage.

Professor Gibson said of the project, “I was thrilled to be contacted by the lead student, Jillian, who had seen our work on cell cryopreservation developed here at Warwick in my group.

“I was really proud to make a contribution to an enthusiastic set of students working on this great program to get high school students involved in real science. I hope it inspires more to take part in the future.”

Rebecca Stamilio-Ehret, a Physics and Astronomy teacher at Edgecombe Community College, who served as the project co-ordinator, further stated, “Students enjoy the challenge of this type of real-world project. They get very involved and have to combine lots of skill sets, like math, science, technical, and problem-solving skills.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.