Astronauts Successfully Sequenced Microbes In Space For The First Time

NASA’s astronauts have sequenced the DNA of microbes that have been found earlier aboard the International Space Station, making it the first time that this kind of unknown organism was sequenced outside of our planet, identifying microbes in space for the first time.

Before, microbes were sent to Earth in order to be analyzed. However, this new sequencing of new organisms is a critical step in diagnosing astronaut illnesses in space. Also, one day, sequencing DNA-based life on alien planets could be possible, according to NASA’s statement. The scientists on Earth confirmed that the identification of the microbes were valid, which means that the experiment was a success.

As a part of the Genes in Space-3 mission, astronauts on the space station grew bacteria they found into colonies. Then, NASA’s astronaut Peggy Whitson used them to amplify and identify their DNA. In July 2016, Kate Rubins, another NASA astronaut, was the first to sequence DNA in space, but this recent experiment was the first time cells were transferred for analyzing and identifying microbes in space.

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Peggy Whitson led the experiment on the space station and was guided by a microbiologist from NASA, Sarah Wallace, with her team at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, although hurricane Harvey interfered in the process.

“We started hearing the reports of Hurricane Harvey the week in between Peggy performing the first part of collecting the sample and gearing up for the actual sequencing,” Wallace said in the statement.

The Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama helped restore the connection between Whitson and Wallace via Wallace’s personal phone, in order for her to guide Whitson to sequence the DNA before the data was sent back to Houston.

“Right away, we saw one microorganism pop up, and then a second one, and they were things that we find all the time on the space station,” Wallace said in the statement. “The validation of these results would be when we got the sample back to test on Earth.”

Whitson, as well as the samples, were sent back to Earth in Sept. 2017, which marked the beginning of the next phase of the Genes in Space-3 mission. Scientists sequenced the microbes from space again on Earth, confirming that the identification was correct.

Prior to the experiment, the astronauts had amplified the DNA to prepare it for analysis on the space station with a device called the miniPCR thermal cycler. Then, they sequenced a DNA sample using the MinION device, according to NASA.

“It was a natural collaboration to put these two pieces of technology together, because individually, they’re both great,” Wallace said, “but together, they enable extremely powerful molecular biology applications.”