Astronauts sequence DNA in space for the first time

Microgravity does little to life's secret sauce, experiment confirms

Kate Rubins and Jeff Williams checking spacesuits. Photo credit: NASA

DNA has been sequenced in space for the first time during a series of experiments performed last weekend by biologist-turned-NASA astronaut, Kate Rubins.

Rubins joined Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi and Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin on an adventure aboard the International Space Station in July.

The team are expected to carry out more than 250 experiments over four months. Rubins, with her background in molecular biology, was responsible for sequencing DNA in space using MinION, a small handheld device the size of a chocolate bar.

The device, created by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, identifies the individual bases in DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine. DNA ribbons inserted into the device pass over tiny electrically charged nanopores made out of proteins and alters the current.

By measuring the changes in current, Rubins can identify the sequence of bases that make up the DNA strand.

Samples of DNA from a mouse, E.coli and lambda phage, a bacteria, were sent to the ISS by Space X’s Dragon capsule.

The experiment is part of the Biomolecule Sequencer investigation which involved the same experiment being carried out simultaneously on Earth. The main difference between both experiments is location, allowing scientists to compare the results and study the effects microgravity has on DNA.

So far, the results show that DNA sequenced on the Earth and in space seem to match up.

NASA microbiologist and co-investigator in the Biomolecular Sequencer experiment group on Earth, Sarah Castro-Wallace, said: “Onboard sequencing makes it possible for the crew to know what is in their environment at any time.”

The goal is to eventually use the biomolecule sequencer to find microbes, diagnose diseases in space and possibly find other forms of DNA-based life.

"Welcome to systems biology in space,” said Rubins, after the first few DNA molecules had been sequenced successfully.

“It is very exciting to be with you guys together at the dawn of genomics biology and systems biology in space," she said. ®

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