DNA Has Been Sequenced in Space for the First Time

September 2, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

DNA sequenced in space
Photo credit: screen capture from video by Science@NASA

A game changer in the hunt for alien life!

Astronaut Kate Rubins onboard the International Space Station (ISS) has used a handheld device called minION to perform the first ever DNA sequencing experiment in space.

The minION device was developed by researchers from Oxford Nanopore Technologies, and was sent to the ISS on July 18th onboard cargo that was being delivered by SpaceX.

Rubins recently performed the DNA sequencing experiment in the microgravity of the space station while the same DNA sequencing experiment was taking place back on Earth. NASA wanted to eliminate any other conditions that might affect the sequencing experiments and only allow the microgravity of the ISS to be the variable in the test data, which will allow NASA to see how well the minION device works in space compared to back here on Earth.

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According to Aaron Burton, a NASA planetary scientist and principal investigator, using the DNA sequencing device in space introduces some potential challenges, especially the concern over the formation of air bubbles in fluid. On Earth when an air bubble forms, it rises to the top of the fluid and is easily removed. But in space, air bubbles behave unpredictably and pose a real challenge as they could potentially block the nanopores of the minION device.

“In space, if an air bubble is introduced, we don’t know how it will behave,” said Burton in a media release. “Our biggest concern is that it could block the nanopores.”

NASA stated in their media release that the minION device demonstrated durability as it operated reliably in microgravity after it withstood vibrations during the launch to the ISS. Further investigation will be required in the future to see if any other factors might affect the performance of the device in space.

In this video, Science@NASA explains what the latest DNA sequencing experiment in microgravity means for science and what research potential the device might hold.

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