NASA says successful DNA sequencing on ISS is major milestone

NASA has detailed what it calls a scientific 'game changer' — the first instance of DNA being successfully sequenced in a microgravity environment. The work was done under the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment on the International Space Station over this past weekend, and was performed by NASA astronaut Kate Rubins. This opens the door for future sequencing of microbes and more on the ISS, and is part of NASA's health-related work as it applies to space and the agency's goal of sending humans to Mars.

NASA is blunt in its description of how important this success is. "Scientists consider it a game changer," the space agency explained, saying that with space-based sequencing abilities, astronauts can use the technology to diagnose an illness or to figure out what particular microbe they're in possession of. More importantly, this sequencing ability will help astronauts identify whether a particular microbe is a health risk.

The key here is that with this success, NASA has demonstrated that it is possible to sequence DNA in a moving spacecraft — something that may be done one day on a spacecraft other than the International Space Station. This is a key technology needed for the space agency's anticipated long-duration deep space missions, the most notable of which is its efforts to get humans to Mars.

If a life form is ever found somewhere beyond Earth by these deep space astronauts, the DNA sequencing ability will be vital to identifying what was discovered. Likewise, it could be vital for figuring out what is wrong with an astronaut who becomes ill.

In this case, the astronauts used DNA samples taken from bacteria, a virus, and mice and tested them with MinION, a commercial DNA sequencing device. To ensure the sampling was correct, researches on the ground sequenced the same samples at the same time, comparing the results to those from the ISS.

Researchers had to overcome several challenges when performing this experiment, among them being trouble removing bubbles from liquids by centrifuge. There was also the risk of the device being damaged by vibrations during launch and transport to the ISS. In the end, though, NASA found the experiment a success, and will be expanding upon it in the near future with a full testing process, including in-space sampling.