To enable astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to analyse biological samples without sending them back to Earth, NASA researchers, including one of Indian-origin, are developing 3-D printable tools that could handle liquids like blood samples without spilling in microgravity.
Learning how bacteria affect crew health, or how genes affect aging and disease, can ensure the safety of long-term missions to Mars and beyond, NASA said on Thursday.
The new NASA project, called Omics in Space, aims to develop technology used to study "omics" -- fields of microbiology that are important to human health. Omics includes research into genomes, microbiomes and proteomes.
NASA has already studied omics with efforts like the Microbial Tracking 1 experiment, which examined microbial diversity on the space station. But there is no way to process samples on the station right now, so they have to be sent down to Earth.
It can be months between the time a sample is taken and an analysis is done, said Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and principal investigator for the Omics in Space project.
"You don't have overnight mail when you go to space," Venkateswaran, an alumnus of Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu, said.
"You have to do all the analysis by yourself. This project will develop an automated system for studying molecular biology with minimal crew intervention," he added.
One of the biggest challenges with preparing samples is handling fluids in microgravity. Astronauts collect a variety of samples, including their own saliva and blood, as well as microbes swabbed from the walls of the ISS.
These samples have to then be mixed with water so they can be injected into instruments for analysis.
Without the proper tools, samples can spill, float or form air bubbles that could compromise results.
In 2016, NASA took a big step by sequencing DNA in space for the first time. Astronauts used a tiny, hand-held sequencing tool called the MinION, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a private company headquartered at Oxford, England.
NASA said the Omics in Space project will build on this success by developing an automated DNA/RNA extractor which will prepare samples for a MinION device.
A critical part of this extractor is a 3-D printable plastic cartridge needed to extract nucleic acids from the samples for the MinION sequencing.
All of this technology has been tested here on Earth, said Camilla Urbaniak, a post-doctoral researcher at JPL and co-investigator on Omics in Space.
"We're taking what's on Earth to analyse DNA and consolidating all the steps into an automated system," Urbaniak said.
"What's new is we're developing a one-stop-shop that can extract and process all of these samples," Urbaniak added.