DNA sequenced in space for the first time

Image: Kate Rubins with DNA experiment
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA using the MiniON device at lower right. (Credit: NASA)

NASA biologist-astronaut Kate Rubins performed the first DNA sequencing experiment in space over the weekend, using a miniaturized device that was delivered to the International Space Station just last month.

The palm-sized MiniON DNA sequencer, built by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, could eventually open the way for full-fledged experiments studying how space radiation might scramble the genes of earthly organisms. This time around, the experiment was aimed merely at finding out whether the device worked.

Rubins used the MiniON sequencer to analyze prepared DNA samples from a mouse, bacteria and a virus. The same analysis was done with equipment down on the ground, with the aim of reading out and matching up the chemical letters of genetic code – that is, adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine.

The outcome? In today’s status update, NASA reported that the experiment demonstrated for the first time that DNA sequencing could indeed be done in an orbiting spacecraft. That wasn’t a sure thing. Some researchers worried that air bubbles could have gummed up the works in zero-G.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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