A Game-Changing Accomplishment

For the first time in history, DNA sequencing was successfully performed in space. Using a compact DNA sequencing device called MinION, which was developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies (and is commercially available, by the way), NASA astronaut Kate Rubins performed a full DNA sequence in the International Space Station last weekend.

As part of the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment, a mission that aims to demonstrate the feasibility of sequencing DNA in an orbiting spacecraft, DNA of bacteria, bacteriophage, and some rodent samples prepared on Earth were passed through the device. These DNA samples pass through membranes called nanopores through which a positive current is run. The resulting changes in the current narrows down the DNA sequence since this effect is unique to every sequence.

The MinION has proven to be capable of enduring the vibrations of launch and has shown consistent results with sequencing performed on Earth, which was done simultaneously for validation. It has successfully withstood the harsh environment, different humidity, temperature and pressure in the orbiting spacecraft.

Previously, it has been difficult to know how sequencing technology would behave in microgravity. Rubins told Scientific American:

We don’t know if bubbles will form or how the sequencing reaction will work without gravity. The second part is, What happens to DNA in space? Sequencing DNA on the ISS will enable NASA to see what happens to genetic material in space in real time, rather than looking at a snapshot of DNA before launch and another snapshot of DNA after launch and filling in the blanks. We can also look at epigenetic modifications to the genome caused by radiation, sleep changes, and so on.

Aaron Burton, NASA planetary scientist and principal investigator says, “In space, if an air bubble is introduced, we don’t know how it will behave. Our biggest concern is that it could block the nanopores.”

The MinION, a palm-sized device, withstood the conditions of space travel and made DNA sequencing possible at the International Space Station. Photo: Oxford Nanopore Technologies

Better Healthcare for Astronauts…and Alien Life Detection

This game-changing feat will result in better healthcare for astronauts. Currently, they have to rely on sending samples back to Earth to be analyzed, before being told what’s making them sick.

The device will also come in handy when it comes to analyzing changes in genetic material in real-time, as well as identifying DNA-based life forms beyond Earth…as in alien life. “A next step is to test the entire process in space, including sample preparation as well as performing the sequencing,” says project manager and NASA microbiologist Sarah Castro-Wallace.

“Onboard sequencing makes it possible for the crew to know what is in their environment at any time,” Castro-Wallace said. “That allows us on the ground to take appropriate action – do we need to clean this up right away, or will taking antibiotics help or not? We can resupply the station with disinfectants and antibiotics now, but once crews move beyond the station’s low Earth orbit, we need to know when to save those precious resources and when to use them.”

As the MinION undergoes more tests, we can only hope that it will stand strong—and continuously usher in a new age of space biology.


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