A new study recognized the Genes in Space-3 team turned that possibility into a reality this year, when it completed the first-ever sample-to-sequence process entirely aboard the space station. For an ability to identify microbes in real time aboard the International Space Station, without having to send them back to Earth for identification first, would be revolutionary for the world of microbiology and space exploration.
The ability to identify microbes in space could aid in the ability to diagnose and treat astronaut ailments in real time, as well as assisting in the identification of DNA-based life on other planets. It could also benefit other experiments aboard the orbiting laboratory. Identifying microbes involves isolating the DNA of samples, and then amplifying — or making many copies — of that DNA that can then be sequenced, or identified. The investigation was broken into two parts: the collection of the microbial samples and amplification by Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), then sequencing and identification of the microbes.
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson conducted the experiment aboard the orbiting laboratory, with NASA microbiologist and the project's Principal Investigator Sarah Wallace and her team watching and guiding her from Houston. As part of regular microbial monitoring, petri plates were touched to various surfaces of the space station. Working within the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) about a week later, Whitson transferred cells from growing bacterial colonies on those plates into miniature test tubes, something that had never been done before in space.
Once the cells were successfully collected, it was time to isolate the DNA and prepare it for sequencing, enabling the identification of the unknown organisms — another first for space microbiology. An historic weather event, though, threatened the ground team's ability to guide the progress of the experiment. Wallace said, "We started hearing the reports of Hurricane Harvey the week in between Peggy performing the first part of collecting the sample and gearing up for the actual sequencing." When JSC became inaccessible due to dangerous road conditions and rising flood waters, the team at Marshall Space Flight Center's Payload Operations Integration Center in Huntsville,
Genes in Space-1 marked the first time the PCR was used in space to amplify DNA with the miniPCR thermal cycler, followed shortly after by Biomolecule Sequencer, which used the MinION device to sequence DNA. Genes in Space-3 married these two investigations to create a full microbial identification process in microgravity.