The Genes in Space-3 team turned that possibility into a reality this year. The team has successfully completed the first-ever sample-to-sequence process entirely aboard the space station. The ability to identify microbes in space could aid in the ability to diagnose and treat astronaut ailments in real time, as well as assisting in the identification of DNA-based life on other planets. It could also benefit other experiments aboard the orbiting laboratory. Identifying microbes involves isolating the DNA of samples, and then amplifying – or making many copies – of that DNA that can then be sequenced, or identified.
The investigation was broken into two parts: the collection of the microbial samples and amplification by Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), then sequencing and identification of the microbes. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson conducted the experiment aboard the orbiting laboratory, with NASA microbiologist and the project’s Principal Investigator Sarah Wallace and her team watching and guiding her from Houston.
“Once we actually got the data on the ground we were able to turn it around and start analyzing it,” said Aaron Burton, NASA biochemist and the project’s co-investigator. “You get all these squiggle plots and you have to turn that into As, Gs, Cs and Ts.”
“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,” said Wallace. “The validation of these results would be when we got the sample back to test on Earth.”
Genes in Space-1 marked the first time the PCR was used in space to amplify DNA with the miniPCR thermal cycler, followed shortly after by Biomolecule Sequencer, which used the MinION device to sequence DNA. Genes in Space-3 married these two investigations to create a full microbial identification process in microgravity.