Scientists have detected microbes aboard the International Space Station for the first time through live tests in the space station laboratory. The new identification methodology could be useful to check microorganisms living on space travelers' body to estimate their health conditions and diseases.
The researchers identified the microbial gene DNA from the samples which were used for study in the space station. Scientists of the Genes in Space-3 team, a collaboration to prepare, sequence and identify unknown organisms, entirely from space, made the findings using sample-to-sequence process which was entirely performed aboard the station.
The identification is revolutionary as it could also boost the scope of detecting alien life using DNA based life detection techniques.
The microbial samples which were earlier sent to Earth from the space station for testing required time-consuming procedures. But the advent of new technology would help in detection of live microorganisms in real time in space.
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson conducted the experiments aboard the space station laboratory while Sarah Wallace, NASA microbiologist, and the project's Principal Investigator watched and guided the mission from the Space Center Houston.
The scientists isolated DNA of samples of organisms and amplified them using Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to make multiple copies which were later sequenced for identification. The petri dish used for microbial monitoring was kept in contact with various surfaces of the space station. The researcher later transferred the growing bacterial colonies into miniature test tubes in Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) after a week. The organisms DNA was later isolated and sequenced for identification, which was the first experiment of the kind in the space. However, the Hurricane Harvey had struck the US during the period and disturbed the experiment.
Even though the hurricane threatened the functioning of the "Mission Control" station at the Marshall Space Flight Center's Payload Operations Integration Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Wallace and Whitson continued with their contacts and missions. Whitson could use the MinION device to sequence the amplified DNA with Wallace's support. Data's sent from the space lab was downloaded, analyzed and identified by the scientists in Houston.
Aaron Burton, NASA biochemist and project's co-investigator said, "Once we actually got the data on the ground we were able to turn it around and start analyzing it."
The researchers categorized the squiggle plots into As, Gs, Cs, and Ts which implies Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine, the four bases which build the strands of DNA in organisms.
Wallace said, "Right away, we saw one microorganism pop up, and then a second one, and they were things that we find all the time on the space station. The validation of these results would be when we got the sample back to test on Earth."
Biochemical sequencing tests were carried on the samples when they were brought back to Earth on Whitson's return. The ground labs could confirm that the tests in the space station had given the exact results as their own the ground lab tests.
E. coli bacteria are one of the most prominent microbial groups sent to space for research. NASA had been sending E.coli to the ISS since September 2013. The bacteria had been used to study effects of antibiotics on bacteria in space station environment. Cygnus spacecraft's resupply mission to ISS in November 2017 included E. coli samples for research. Scientists have also identified several other microbes which were brought to space by astronauts who visited the space station.
The technology could help human expansion to other planets as it could be used for diagnosis of astronaut's ailments and could aid treatments.