Women Make History By Sequencing DNA In Outer Space and Underwater

Kathleen Rubins
Kathleen Rubins

Women are making space history this July. NASA Astronaut Kathleen Rubins became the 60th woman to fly in space. She is now leading a project to sequence DNA on the International Space Station.

Up until now, there has been no way to perform sequencing in space, NASA Scientist Sarah Castro-Wallace told a news conference at NASAs Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, TX. Instead, samples must wait until crews aboard the ISS return to the ground to perform such testing. The ability to perform sequencing on the station would allow for in-flight microbe identification. Identifying sequences would help diagnose illnesses, assuring crew member health.

minION DNA sequencer

The DNA sequencer is a hand-held device that can be connected to a laptop computer or a tablet with a USBconnection. It can perform experiments for up to six hours at a time and does not need a battery.

A team also performed a DNA sequencing under water on the ocean floor in the Aquarius research facility for NASAs Extreme Environment Mission Operations(NEEMO). Aquanaut Dawn Kernagis has tweeted photos of the sequencer, which would be used as part of a program to monitor air, water and surfaces for microbial contamination on the station to ensure the safety of space crews. Such information would be crucial on long range missions.

Tests are being performed on blood samples to see if the effects of microgravity in space are similar to those of high pressure situations in underwater environments. This information could be especially helpful as extremophiles could potentially be found on Mars, Wallace explained.

Eventually, the sequencer may also help detect DNA-based life elsewhere in the solar system, Wallace added.

On the ISS, Astronaut Rubins, who became an astronaut in 2009, is uniquely qualified for this research. She has a PhD in Cancer Biology from Stanford University. She has studied viral infection and RNA transcription, including genome sequencing on Ebola and Lassa Fever viruses.

At the Aquarius facility, researchers work about 3.5 miles off the coast of Key Largo, FL. The facility has been in operation since 2001. Aquanauts can live on the facility for up to three weeks at a time, conducting space simulation missions with various crews. Women have been aquanauts in several NEEMO Missions, living and working on site at the facility to perform scientific experiments, including EVAs along the ocean floor. Women on the current mission, NEEMO 21, include Kernagis, scheduled to splash down July 26, and Megan Behnken-McArthur, who was joined the mission July 21.

Kernagis is part of the Naval Sea Systems Command and principal investigator for The Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. She is a diver who has led underwater research and exploration projects since 1993. She was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame this year before being selected to join NEEMO 21.

McArthur, an oceanographer who became an astronaut in 2000, has worked extensively in space before joining NEEMO 21. In space, she has served as a capsule communicator for both the ISS and the space shuttle. She made history in her role as mission specialist in the final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope when she became the last person to work with the telescope’s robotic arm, improving its capabilities and extending its useful life.

The NEEMO facility is located about 47 feet underwater. According to NASA, visitors can only stay about 80 minutes there before risking decompression illness. Aquanauts can stay for extended periods at the facility but must undergo 17 hours of decompression within Aquarius before leaving the facility and returning to the surface via scuba.

The ISS is a habitable artificial satellite in low Earth orbit that can be seen with the naked eye. The ISS is sunlit and can best be seen at night, including just after sunset or before sunrise. To see for yourself, go to https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/