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Kate Rubins with DNA sequencer
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA using the MiniON device at lower right. (Credit: NASA)

NASA biologist-astronaut Kate Rubins performed the first DNA sequencing experiment in space over the weekend, using a miniaturized device that was delivered to the International Space Station just last month.

The palm-sized MiniON DNA sequencer, built by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, could eventually open the way for full-fledged experiments studying how space radiation might scramble the genes of earthly organisms. This time around, the experiment was aimed merely at finding out whether the device worked.

Rubins used the MiniON sequencer to analyze prepared DNA samples from a mouse, bacteria and a virus. The same analysis was done with equipment down on the ground, with the aim of reading out and matching up the chemical letters of genetic code – that is, adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine.

The outcome? In today’s status update, NASA reported that the experiment demonstrated for the first time that DNA sequencing could indeed be done in an orbiting spacecraft. That wasn’t a sure thing. Some researchers worried that air bubbles could have gummed up the works in zero-G.

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

As the experiment proceeds, Burton and his colleagues will be checking the DNA data for any sign that the effects of spaceflight could introduce errors. If all goes well, the astronauts will proceed with the entire process of DNA sampling, preparation and sequencing in space.

Previous studies have shown that some pathogens, such as Salmonella bacteria, become more virulent in space. What’s more, space station astronauts have had to weather occasional problems with space mold.

“Onboard sequencing makes it possible for the crew to know what is in their environment at any time,” NASA microbiologist Sarah 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.””

Other experiments are already looking into whether gene expression changes in zero-G, and whether genetic changes that occur in space affect human health. Having a DNA sequencer in orbit will help with such studies – and it almost goes without saying that any search for life on Mars will require DNA analysis.

“Welcome to systems biology in space,” Rubins, a molecular biologist who specializes in infectious diseases, told Mission Control after starting the sequencing. She passed along her thanks to the ground team, then added that “it is very exciting to be with you guys together at the dawn of genomics biology and systems biology in space.”

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