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Why Sequencing DNA in Space is a Big Deal

Why Sequencing DNA in Space is a Big Deal

… And How You Can Talk
to the Scientists Who Made It Happen


than one month ago, DNA had never been sequenced in space. As of today, more
than one billion base pairs of DNA have been sequenced aboard the
International Space Station, Earth’s only orbiting laboratory. The ability to
sequence the DNA of living organisms in space opens a whole new world of
scientific and medical possibilities. Scientists consider
it a game changer. 


astronaut Kate Rubins, who has a background in genomics, conducted the
sequencing on the space station as part of the Biomolecule
Sequencer investigation. A small, commercial, off-the-shelf device called
MinION (min-EYE-ON), manufactured by Oxford Nanopore Technologies in the UK,
was used to sequence the DNA of bacteria, a virus and rodents. Human DNA was
not sequenced, and there are no immediate plans to sequence human DNA in space. 


(Image Credit: Oxford Nanopore Technologies)

The MinION is about the size of a candy bar, and plugs into
a laptop or tablet via USB connection, which also provides power to the device.
The tiny, plug and play sequencer is diminutive compared to the large
microwave-sized sequencers used on Earth, and uses much less power. Unlike
other terrestrial instruments whose sequencing run times can take days, this
device’s data is available in near real time; analysis can begin within 10-15
minutes from the application of the sample.


Having real-time
analysis capabilities aboard the space station could allow crews to
identify microbes, diagnose infectious disease and collect genomic and genetic
data concerning crew health, without having to wait long periods of time to
return samples to Earth and await ground-based analysis.

The first DNA sequencing was conducted on Aug. 26, and on
Sept. 14, Rubins and the team of scientists back at NASA’s Johnson Space Center
in Houston hit the one-billionth-base-pairs-of-DNA-sequenced mark.


more questions about how the Biomolecule Sequencer works, or how it could
benefit Earth or further space exploration? Ask the team of scientists behind
the investigation, who will be  available for
questions during a Reddit Ask Me Anything on /r/science on Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 2 p.m. EDT. 

The participants are:

Dr. Aaron Burton, NASA Johnson
Space Center, Planetary Scientist and Principal Investigator

Dr. Sarah Castro-Wallace, NASA Johnson
Space Center, Microbiologist and Project Manager

Dr. David J. Smith, NASA Ames
Research Center, Microbiologist

Dr. Mark Lupisella, NASA Goddard
Space Flight Center, Systems Engineer

Dr. Jason P. Dworkin, NASA Goddard
Space Flight Center, Astrobiologist

Dr. Christopher E. Mason, Weill
Cornell Medicine Dept. of Physiology and Biophysics, Associate Professor

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