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NASA Makes Plans to Start Sequencing DNA in Space

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – On July 18, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency will send its next payload of supplies and technology to the International Space Station, including an Oxford Nanopore MinIon sequencer.

The astronauts on the ISS will test the device's function in space by sequencing bacterial, viral, and mouse DNA, whose sequences have already been well documented, and then send the data back to Earth to be compared to sequences from MinIons on the ground.

As of now, the MinIon is the only sequencer that could conceivably be used in space, according to Johnson Space Center microbiologist Sarah Wallace. The instrument's size makes it ideal for such a use, she told GenomeWeb. And unlike Illumina and Sanger sequencing instruments, for example, the MinIon isn't particularly sensitive to vibrations and doesn't need large amounts of electricity to run, she added.

That said, and although the agency is eager to sequence more microorganisms, including those found in the ISS environment and on the astronauts themselves, the reliability of the MinIon in a microgravity environment has be ascertained, Wallace explained in a NASA conference call this afternoon. There's a concern that bubbles could form when the samples are loaded into the device — something that's not really a problem on Earth — so the first step is to learn about the MinIon's fluid dynamics in space.

Further, she told GenomeWeb, "We have to develop a spaceflight-compatible process to get the samples into the sequencer." NASA is also hoping to develop a system in which the sequence data can be analyzed directly on the ISS, she added.

Eventually, Wallace said, the agency wants to be able to open up the ISS MinIon for researchers on Earth to use, as well. "I do envision utilizing the ISS as an international lab," she noted. "If we can show this can all work, we want the academic and scientific community to know about it, so when they write [research] proposals, they can propose to use the technology on the ISS."

The technology also has the potential to be used on other planets, Wallace said. Her colleague Aaron Burton is looking at the possibility of modifying the MinIon in such a way that it could be attached to a lander for the exploration of Mars or any other planet. Because the MinIon works so differently from other sequencers and can look for DNA, RNA, or proteins, its nanopores could potentially be modified to look for different kinds of nucleotides as well, Wallace added.

"To the best of my knowledge this is the only technology that gives us the ability to look at something unknown," she said. "I can look at all the bacteria that are present in a sample, as opposed to PCR where you need specific primers and need to know exactly what you're looking for. What is there that we don't even know that we're looking for? This technology fits the bill."

NASA is also planning to send a MinIon to its NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) underwater research station off the coast of Key Largo in Florida on July 18. The researchers and engineers at the station — which was built as an analog to space exploration — will conduct the same sequencing experiments on bacteria, viruses, and mice in the underwater environment.

And other researchers are already planning experiments in space, assuming the MinIon works on the ISS the same way it works on the ground.

NASA's conference call included a presentation from Bruce Hammer, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, who is proposing to study the omics of bone cells as they respond to microgravity. Astronauts lose considerable bone mass in orbit, Hammer said, so this experiment would look at gene expression, protein expression and its correlation with gene expression, and metabolite levels in bone cell samples being sent up to the ISS on July 18. The experiment likely won't begin until September or October when the astronauts on the ISS start thawing out the frozen cells, he said. But once the experiment starts, he and his colleagues will also look to compare data from the ISS experiments to data garnered on bone cells in microgravity simulators here on Earth.  

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