A Hand-Held DNA Sequencing Device Is on Its Way to the Space Station

July 20, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Astronauts working outside the ISS
Photo credit: NASA

And it might help us find alien life!

The International Space Station (ISS) will be getting a new DNA sequencing tool that will help the astronauts onboard find answers to one of the biggest questions we have — is there life out there in space?


minION device in an outstretched hand

The MinION, a miniaturized DNA sequencer. Credit: Oxford Nanopore Technologies via NASA.

The Biomolecule sequencer called, minION is included in the cargo load of the Dragon capsule that was launched by SpaceX on Monday July 18th and is expected to arrive at the ISS later today with its cargo load. Once it arrives, astronaut Kate Rubins, who is onboard the ISS, will attempt the first ever in-space DNA sequencing analysis using the minION that was developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

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"We're really interested in how this works in microgravity. It's never been done before," Rubins said in an interview with The Associated Press.

A DNA sequencer allows scientists to analyze the order of the chemical building blocks along a stretch of DNA. This sequence provides hereditary information to scientists and it can be useful way to identify and study viruses.

“All the [ISS’s] water is recycled and that’s from urine, condensate, sweat, everything,” Sarah Wallace, a microbiologist and the manager of the sequencing project told Gizmodo. “Is it being processed to where it’s microbially clean? We want to know in a more real-time way is that water processor working.”

Rubins, a new arrival onboard the ISS, studied Ebola and other deadly viruses before she became an astronaut, and now she will be using the DNA sequencing device to test samples onboard the ISS, which includes a strange fungus that grew on one of the walls onboard.

Mildew or fungus growing on the wall of the ISS

Credit: NASA

“In the past, we’ve had visible fungi growing on the ISS, and we want to know what that fungi is,” said Wallace. “Is it benign or something to be concerned about? Knowing what it is, the microbiologists can recommend what to do to deal with the issue.”

DON'T MISS: Fungus Growth on the ISS Gives Hope for Life on Mars

“For all the reasons the sequencer is good for microbiology applications—it’s small, it’s lightweight, pretty robust—it’s a good piece of equipment to send to other locations in the solar system,” Aaron Burton, astrobiologist and the lead of the sequencing project, told Gizmodo. “So if you wanted to go to Mars and see if there was life, if you had a small sequencer device, you could take it with you, and you could actually start looking for life.”

For the time being, the sequencer’s first project will simply be to see if it works as well in microgravity as it does here on Earth. Once that’s assessed, the DNA sequencer will be an exciting tool for further research in the future onboard the space station.

"Altogether, it's an extremely exciting research package and a great capability on board station," Rubins said.

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