Studying DNA Aboard the International Space Station
What do astronauts, microbes and plants all have in common? Each relies on DNA – essentially a computer code for living things – to grow and thrive. The microscopic size of DNA, however, can create some big challenges for studying it aboard the International Space Station.
The real question about DNA in space:
but why, tho?
Studying DNA in space could lead to a better understanding of
microgravity’s impact on living organisms and could also offer ways to identify
unknown microbes in spacecraft, humans and the deep space locations we hope to
visit one day.
molecular research equipment is large and requires significant amounts of power
to run. Those are two characteristics that can be difficult to support aboard
the station, so previous research samples requiring DNA amplification and sequencing had to be stored in space until they
could be sent back to Earth aboard a cargo spacecraft, adding to the time
required to get results.
Fun science pro tip:
amplification means to make lots and lots of copies of a specific section of
However, all of
that has changed in a few short years as we’ve worked to find new solutions
for rapid in-flight molecular testing aboard the space station.
“We need[ed] to
get machines to be compact, portable, robust, and independent of much power
generation to allow for more agile testing in space,” NASA astronaut and molecular biologist Kate
Rubins said in a 2016 downlink with the National Institutes of Health.
testing took off in 2016 with the Biomolecule Sequencer.
In 2017, that tool was used again for Genes in Space-3, as NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson
collected and tested samples of microbial growth from around the station.
astronauts also tested miniPCR, a thermal cycler used to perform the polymerase
chain reaction that had been downsized to fit workbenches aboard the space
station. Together these platforms provided the identification of unknown
station microbes for the first time EVER from space.
This year, those testing capabilities translated
into an even stronger portfolio of DNA-focused research for the orbiting
laboratory’s fast-paced science schedule. For example, miniPCR is being used to
test weakened immune systems and DNA alterations as part of a student-designed
investigation known as Genes in Space-5.
The study hopes
to reveal more about astronaut health and potential stress-related changes to
DNA created by spaceflight. Additionally, WetLab-2 facility is a suite of tools aboard the station
designed to process biological samples for real-time gene expression analysis.
More tools for filling out the complete
molecular studies opportunities on the orbiting laboratory are heading to space
revolution has begun,” said Sarah Wallace, our principal investigator for
the upcoming Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) investigation. “These are very small, efficient tools. We
have a nicely equipped molecular lab on station and devices ideally sized for
scheduled to launch to the station later this spring and will compare
swab-to-sequencer testing of unknown microbes aboard the space station against current
sequencing and identification processes could keep explorers safer on missions
into deep space. On Earth, these technologies may make genetic research more
accessible, affordable and mobile.
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