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First DNA Sequencing in Space May Help Detect Alien Life Forms

Technology By
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

NASA reports that molecular biologist and virologist Kate Rubins successfully conducted the first DNA sequencing experiment in space, which potentially could improve the health of astronauts and even help NASA discover extraterrestrial life.

Rubins, who began training for this mission in 2009, is monitoring and conducting over 250 experiments aboard the International Space Station, including a continuation of Johns Hopkins’ work with sequencing DNA in microgravity. The key difference is that the Hopkins researchers’ experiments took place on a parabola-flying plane, whereas Rubins is conducting hers as an astronaut.

NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA in space for the first time ever for the Biomolecule Sequencer investigation, using the MinION sequencing device. (NASA)
NASA Astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA in space for the first time ever for the Biomolecule Sequencer investigation, using the MinION sequencing device. (NASA)

Rubins told Scientific American in June that her experience working with smallpox and Ebola was easily transferable to this mission. “The work I’ve done with dangerous pathogens helps you concentrate and keep your head together in a difficult and high-pressure situation,” she said, adding that “the kind of technology they use in a remote field medical center is the same kind of technology you’d probably start designing for an instrument on Mars or deep-space exploration.”

Rubins said that these experiments “will enable NASA to see what happens to genetic material in space in real time, rather than looking at a snapshot of DNA before launch and another snapshot of DNA after launch and filling in the blanks.” Ultimately, the big question NASA wants the experiments to answer is “whether these devices can detect signatures of life in the universe.”

NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) crew member, Matthias Maurer of ESA, works on inserting samples into the MinION DNA sequencer as part of the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment. Researchers tested the device aboard the analog to minimize unknowns and see how the device worked in various extreme environments. (NASA)
NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) crew member, Matthias Maurer of ESA, works on inserting samples into the MinION DNA sequencer as part of the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment. Researchers tested the device aboard the analog to minimize unknowns and see how the device worked in various extreme environments. (NASA)

As of August 2016, NASA declared the experiment a success and echoed Rubins’ remarks that the equipment used will help NASA “protect astronaut health during long duration missions” and possibly even “identify DNA-based life forms beyond Earth.” To read more about the experiments NASA terms a “game changer”, click here.