Genomics in space; real, zero-gravity DNA sequencing just took a step closer to becoming a reality.

Next month, a new batch of astronauts will be arriving on board the International Space Station. Among them, virologist Kate Rubins, who is set to make history as the first person to sequence DNA in space.

Kate rubins NASA

Astronaut Kate Rubins trains at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, with Chloe Streeter assisting. Image Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett

Kate’s kit for this project will be a tiny device with big ambitions: the MinION portable DNA sequencer developed by Oxford Nanopore. MinION has already had one zero G test, riding the infamous ‘vomit comet’ with geneticists Andrew Feinberg and Lindsay Rizzardi from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. As their aircraft rose and fell on its parabolic course, Feinberg and Rizzardi put key tools for space science to the test, including the tiny sequencer and were able to sequence a small amount of pre-prepared DNA.

On board ISS, Kate will be looking to confirm and extend their initial findings. “The first part of the experiment is more technology development: looking to see how this kind of sequencing technology behaves in microgravity,” she explained in an interview with 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.”

On Earth MinION has made its mark as the go-to sequencing device for field work, making it the ideal choice for a spin in orbit and maybe further afield. “The kind of technology they use in a remote field medical center is the same kind of technology you’d probably start designing for an instrument on Mars or deep-space exploration,” Kate said.

Beyond finding out what happens to DNA in space, sequencing on-the-go is a big boon to the search for extra-terrestrial life. As Kate explains, “the really critical question for NASA is whether these devices can detect signatures of life in the universe.” 

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