A New research on ISS, by evaluating the performance of the MinION in a space environment, we tested it aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Durations for Mars missions are likely to range from 1.5 to 3 years, with 12 to 24 months of that time spent in transit between the planets, based on present propulsion technologies and planetary orbital dynamics. In response to spaceflight, the human immune response becomes dysregulated, microbial pathogenicity can rise during spaceflight.

Beyond gene expression-mediated virulence changes, it is unclear how microbial populations would evolve, both in terms of population ecology and genetic mutations, over the course of a multi-year mission with increased exposure to ionizing radiation and microgravity during transit. 

Sequencing is a technology that could potentially address several critical spaceflight needs: infectious disease diagnosis, population metagenomics, gene expression changes, and accumulation of genetic mutations.This device sequences DNA and RNA by measuring current changes caused by nucleic acid molecules passing through protein nanopores embedded in membranes; the change in current is diagnostic of the sequence of the DNA or RNA occupying the pore at a given time.

To evaluate the performance of the MinION in a space environment, we tested it aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Our results of the first-ever DNA sequencing in space indicate that the performance of the MinION sequencing platform was not adversely affected by transport to the ISS, nor by loading or operation in its microgravity environment. 

 In all cases, the person loading the ground control samples had considerably more experience with the Biomolecule Sequencer payload than the corresponding astronaut. From a spaceflight perspective, in the immediate future the MinION holds the potential to greatly improve the rate at which ISS research can be performed by allowing researchers rapid access to data obtained in-flight, rather than having to wait for sample return.

With robust experiment planning and some foresight, research projects that required multiple flights over several years could now be performed in a matter of months, as researchers could monitor experiment progress in real-time and adjust as needed (i.e., cadence of time points, identifying a subset of samples that should be returned to Earth for further analysis, etc.).

In the current study, we used the SURPIrt computational platform to simulate an automated metagenomic analysis of nanopore data in real-time, from read processing to microbial identification to genome assembly on both a server and a laptop, and we also showed that rapid (15 sec) assembly was possible, highlighting the ability to use these tools and techniques locally for future missions.

The ability of nanopore analysers to lodge a range of polymers increases the chance of noticing extraterrestrial life, which could use different bases or sugars in its genetic material beyond canonical nucleotide-based DNA and RNA.