Featured Project: Space Origami

Space Origami is a team of science and engineering students that plans to use DNA to construct three-dimensional structures in outer space. After winning support at a competition in Germany, they are now running a SpaceStarters crowdfunding campaign to conduct an exciting experiment.

Engineers can currently build nanoscale structures out of DNA here on Earth, but gravity makes it difficult to build larger structures. The team’s idea is thus to bring so-called “DNA origami” to the International Space Station and build structures beyond the nanoscale. DNA origami is a promising technique that, if improved, could have spillover benefits in areas ranging from robotics to medicine. We spoke with Karoline Kadletz and Joram Gruber, of the Space Origami team, to learn more about their team’s crowdfunding campaign.

***

What does “Space Origami” mean?

“Space Origami” is the name of our mission. We want to bring innovative material DNA origami to space for the first time and crystallize it!

You might be asking what space origami is. Well, like paper origami, DNA origami is a way to form two- and three-dimensional structures. But instead of folding sheets of paper, DNA origami folds DNA strands. In this way, scientists and engineers can create a wide variety of objects such as boxes, hinges, and rotors, all on a nanoscale.

The next step in DNA origami is to move beyond the nanometer level and build larger structures. Such structures will be akin to crystal formations, with millions of smaller structures coming together to form a large, very stable one.

So far, however, it has been impossible to produce uniform crystals here on Earth. One possible reason for this could be Earth’s gravity, whose effects may hinder crystal growth. In microgravity conditions, though, these effects are negligible. So, microgravity provides optimal conditions for growing crystals. The ISS thus offers a unique opportunity to exploit microgravity’s positive effects and try growing three-dimensional DNA origami crystals. Growing such crystals could lead to breakthroughs in robotics, computer science, materials science, medicine, and drug development.

How exactly would crowdfunding help your team achieve its goal?

At a Germany-wide Airbus competition last year, we won a crowdfunding campaign on SpaceStarters, which is a platform specialized in space-related projects that need funding. Space Origami is a crowdfunding campaign, meaning supporters receive rewards for donating to our project. This is different from SpaceStarter’s crowd-investing campaigns, where investors expect financial returns on their investments.

Depending on the amount of their donations, our supporters can choose between different rewards. These range from mission patches, to a side of our ScienceBox after it safely returns to Earth, to an exclusive VIP ticket to the launch site when our experiment is sent to the ISS from the Kennedy Space Center!

If we do meet our funding threshold of €190,000, we can build a fully automated experiment for crystallizing DNA origami in microgravity. And we will be able to send it to the TangoLab facilities on the ISS! If we don’t meet the threshold, all supporters will get their money back.

How did you become involved in this project?

Karoline: Working with DNA origami at the Technical University of Munich, I was instantly fascinated by the challenge of successfully producing macroscopic 3D crystals. Via an organization called Technicians without Borders, I met Joram, an Aerospace Engineering Student. He was likewise enthused by both space and materials science. When we discussed this scientific problem, we began thinking about how microgravity could facilitate crystal growth.

Joram: When Airbus announced a Germany-wide competition for students last year, looking for the most exciting microgravity experiments, we saw our chance to be able to send our experiment to space! We were able to make a convincing case about the idea, the experimental setup, and the motivation. Now, we are busy perfecting our experimental setup and running a successful crowdfunding campaign.

We believe that the future of space research will no longer be limited to state institutions and large companies. With the Space Origami mission, we want to take a big step in DNA origami research, and we furthermore want to show that students can successfully develop and launch experiments to the ISS with the help of crowdfunding.