Most experiments, which are performed under simulated or actual microgravity as well as under terrestrial conditions, deal with central questions of the translation of external physical forces into biological reactions. The Space Biology Group laboratories with which the participating experiments were conducted are equipped with state-of-the-art technology and instruments for the analysis of cell reactions using cell biological, biochemical, biotechnological and electrophysiological approaches. Since the founding of the Space Biology Group in 1977, mechanobiological investigations have been carried out on various biological systems, from fungi to human cells and on various research platforms such as centrifuges, microgravity simulators, parabolic flights (using aircraft from the European Space Agency ESA and the Swiss Air Force), sounding rockets, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station ISS laboratories.
The Space Biology Group occupies a 650 m2 area at the Obermattweg 9 in Hergiswil near Lucerne. This includes modern offices and meeting rooms (250 m2), 4 laboratories (BSL 1 and BSL 2 levels, 320 m2), one microscopy room (20 m2), and one control room (60 m2) for taking active part in space missions. Furthermore, there is a small kitchen available. All 11 offices are equipped with computers, telephones and office desks.
The laboratories are equipped with all the necessary tools to carry out state-of-the-art cell biology experiments involving the long-term cultivation of various cell types from bacteria to algae to mammalian cells (using laminar flow benches and various types of incubators). In addition, instruments are available to perform investigations at both cell genome and protein level (using real-time PCR, Western blotting equipment, etc.). Standard techniques such as immunocytochemistry and fluorescence and immunohistochemistry are well established in our laboratories. The methods for embedding, cutting and staining have long been established. Our microscopy room enables an adequate visual inspection and documentation of the results obtained with the staining technique. A confocal laser scanning microscope, an inverted light microscope and several regular microscopes are available for visual inspection in fluorescence and brightfield, phase contrast, DIC, VAREL contrast and Hoffman Modulation Contrast (iHMC) mode. In addition, we are working on a new Digital Holographic Microscope (DHM) that will greatly expand our capabilities in microscopy by enabling us to capture 3D images of cells or tissues under real and simulated weightlessness conditions.
In addition, the Space Biology Group maintains various soil-based microgravity simulation devices stored in large temperature-controlled climate chambers. We have specialized in the use of Random Positioning Machines (RPM) to conduct studies in an environment where the gravitational vector is averaged to zero. In addition to operating the RPMs, we are also engaged in the development and construction of new generations of RPMs that offer special features that researchers can benefit from, such as the generation of a partial gravitational environment (gravitational levels between 0g and 1g). A selection of the RPMs available in the Space Biology Group is shown below:
MGI featuring a build on incubator and partial gravity
MGS compact version that guarantees equal sample processing
These RPM devices are not only used by researchers of the Space Biology Group, but are also offered to interested persons from research institutions, industry or public schools. For this reason, the Space Biology Group was the official ESA ground station for many years.
The execution of research under weightlessness requires the development of novel experimental hardware. In a highly interdisciplinary structure, the Space Biology Group promotes collaboration between engineers and scientists in the realization of such hardware. In the past, cooperation with the following institutions and industries has proven to be very fruitful and has led to the realization of several microgravity-tested hardware: FHNW; Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts; Buchs University of Applied Sciences; Zurich University of Applied Sciences; RUAG, Nyon; CSEM, Neuchâtel; Seyonic, Neuchatel; SpaceTek Engineering, Bern, Switzerland
The Swiss Space Center for Biotechnology of the European Space Agency ESA is one of four European User Support and Operation Centers (USOCs). These centres are responsible for the preparation and operation of the European experiments on board the International Space Station ISS. BIOTESC is responsible for the preparation, testing and operation of biological experiments carried out within the BIOLAB facility of the Columbus module (which is one of the ISS modules), the KUBIK facility or the stand-alone hardware installed in one of the ISS modules. The BIOTESC team is responsible for the implementation of the operational products and for supporting the astronauts in carrying out the related biological experiments on board the ISS from our integrated control room.