NASA Sends DNA Sequencer to ISS

MinION USB miniature DNA sequencer coming this year

MinION USB miniature DNA sequencer coming this year

The International Space Station just received a valuable piece of mail. Its a little device with big possibilities. It’s a mini DNA sequencer with capabilities that could benefit all mankind, and SpaceX are involved.

The private space transport company famous for its recent reusable rocket experiments, supplied the ISS with the sequencer. Their unmanned Dragon supply spacecraft was launched on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. Dragon reached the station on July 20, after taking two days to catch up to it.

What Does the Spacecraft Contain?

Jeff Williams, the current commander of the ISS, used a robotic arm to capture the Dragon spacecraft. The crew members on board the ISS then spent the next several hours installing the craft on the station’s Earth-facing side. They made sure the area between the craft and the station was pressurized. Over the next five weeks, the crew will unload the spacecraft.

If you thought packing for college was hard, try unloading over 2,000 lbs. of supplies, hardware, research samples and scientific equipment! This is all essential to the 250+ experiments that will happen on the ISS in the coming months. While the DNA sequencer is just one of the new experiments making their way on board, other experiments include beating heart cells and a thermostat for spacecraft.

As an added bonus, the station also received a huge piece of equipment, weighing in at more than 1,000 lbs. It’s one of two International Docking Adapters, which will allow manned spacecraft to dock with the station’s U.S. wing for the first time since the space shuttle. While that news in itself is awesome, let’s move on to the real star of the show: the DNA sequencer.

What Is DNA Sequencing?

DNA sequencing is used to characterize organisms and measure how they react to environmental changes. It’s a large part of molecular biology, a field based on understanding the molecular basis of life forms. This is analyzed by looking at DNA, RNA and proteins.

MinION USB stick gene sequencer finally comes to market

The candy-bar size handheld sequencer, called MinION, can plug into a laptop or tablet. The computer provides the power for the sequencer and receives the data the sequencer captures.

To collect data, MinION is waved over a perforated surface that contains nanopores. The device projects an ionic current through the surface. As molecules pass through the pores of the surface, MinION picks up on the changes in the ionic current that these molecules make. DNA sequences are identified by these current changes.

What Are the Capabilities of the MinION?

MinION has capabilities that far exceed its primary function. This includes the following:

  • Assessing the health of crews and vehicles in-flight by way of microbial identification
  • Monitoring DNA changes in microbes and astronauts
  • Analyzing the DNA of life on other planets, if those life forms contain DNA (in other words, aliens!)

If this device works in space, it could be a huge time-saver for astronauts. Currently, any DNA sample, whether taken from an astronaut or other microbial organism on the ISS, must be sent back to Earth to be studied. Using MinION, ISS crew members can have the data they need in real time — within 10 to 15 minutes of taking a sample.

The sequencer is part of the NASA Biomolecule Sequencer investigation. The goals of the investigation are as follows:

  • Demonstrate that the device has potential for use
  • Evaluate its operability in a microgravity environment

The investigation will consist of DNA sequencing on samples that were prepared on Earth. Subjects for testing include bacteria, bacteriophage (a virus that infects a bacterium and replicates inside it) and rodents. Simultaneously, ground crews on Earth will be evaluating how well the device works.

MinION also has applications on earth. DNA sequencing on earth requires expensive and huge equipment. Not only will MinION reduce the size of these instruments and save time, but it could also diagnose infectious diseases.

Some areas on Earth have minimal resources. Luckily, MinION does not require much to get a DNA sequencing experiment up and running. This will come in handy for scientists and doctors in remote locations and developing countries. Medical experiments on the ISS have paved the way for many human health advancements on Earth, and MinION is one of those experiments.

NASA is excited to find out how MinION will perform in space. For such a small device, it will aid astronauts significantly, as well as thousands of people on Earth.

Credit: Megan Ray Nichols – Science Writer  www.schooledbyscience.com  Contact: nicholsrmegan@gmail.com

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