NASA Astronomers Sequence DNA of Unknown Organisms at the International Space Station

nasa peggy
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson identified unknown samples in space using two processes: polymerase chain reaction and DNA sequencing. NASA

Astronomers at the International Space Station successfully sequenced the genes of three unknown organisms and correctly identified them without sending the samples back to Earth. The work, part of a project known as Genes in Space-3, makes identifying life on foreign planets (through their DNA) and treating sick astronauts aboard the space station closer to reality.

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The process was not easy, but scientists cracked the code by separating out DNA and making copies that could be studied. This information was then used to determine the genetic make-up of the samples so scientists could correctly determine what the unknown microbes were.

The research took place entirely on the orbiting lab, and came together in two separate processes. First, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and her team collected microorganisms. Then, they created multiple samples using a process known as polymerase chain reaction. This common technique involves making new DNA strands from old ones in order to produce potentially billions of copies of a particular section of DNA.

Using their samples, scientists then transferred bacteria colonies from petri dishes into test tubes, a first for researchers in space. They sequenced DNA to determine the exact order of nucleotides, the genetic building blocks, of each. This information allowed the scientists to identify the organisms, which were previously unknown.

As NASA explained in their original announcement in April, the success was attributed to combining two techniques that were not previously used together: miniPCR, a device that allowed the team to duplicate the samples, and the MinION, a handheld machine used to sequence DNA.

"What the coupling of these different devices is doing is allowing us to take the lab to the samples, instead of us having to bring the samples to the lab," Aaron Burton, NASA biochemist and researcher, said in a statement.

For the first time, unknown microbes have been identified on @Space_Station, without needing to be sent back to Earth for sequencing. Watch how scientists overcame #HurricaneHarvey to complete this experiment, and what it means for space exploration.

— ISS Research (@ISS_Research) December 19, 2017

Making the research even more significant is that the team performed the feat during Hurricane Harvey. Researcher Sarah Wallace was on the ground at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and provided support and coaching to Whitson throughout the endeavor, which was almost stopped short due to the storm. But the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama successfully connected Wallace to Whitson via cell phone when communication at the Johnson Space Center was inhibited. According to NASA, Wallace's team helped analyze and ID the samples.

Eventually, the samples made it back to earth, where researchers verified that the results determined in space were in fact accurate.

"We did it. Everything worked perfectly," said microbiologist and researcher Sarah Stahl, in a statement.