Nature's Sugar High

Your sweet tooth may get a treat that is literally "out of this world," thanks to experiments aboard the Space Shuttle.

A team comprising French and American scientists reports they have crystallized one of the most interesting families of intensely sweet proteins, a natural molecule called thaumatin, isolated from the African Serendipity Berry (Thaumatococcus daniellii).

Using otherwise similar crystallizing conditions, the space crystal showed a nearly 25% larger volume compared to its earth-grown counterparts and yielded nearly twice the crystalline order. Scientists hope to use the space-grown crystals to improve the biological understanding of how these molecules work based on detailed knowledge of their shape and exact atomic positions. According to the study, the visual quality of the space crystals "appeared virtually flawless, with no observable imperfections, striations or anomalies."

The complex and costly management of human diabetes, obesity, and oral health has spawned a widespread search for natural sugar substitutes that are both non-caloric and safe. The calorie-free thaumatin protein, sometimes called nature's "artificial sweetener" was analyzed by scientists from the University of California, Irvine and the Institute for Molecular Biology in Strasbourg, France.

In a control study, the team compared space-grown thaumatin crystals with some previously obtained from on earth in a conventional laboratory. They found that the space crystals provided 30% more real information about the molecule's shape. This moves the investigation closer to revealing the biological function of these complex molecules

According to their report, the space crystals reinforce the conclusion of other reports based on different macromolecules that a microgravity environment provides distinct advantages. In the best of only a few thaumatin crystals grown in microgravity, compared with many more tri

Contact: Tim Tyson
(256) 544-0994
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center--Space Sciences Laboratory

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