Genes in Space an DNA experiment in Space by Students

DNA replication, PCR

Most of the space research organization has successfully sent various spacecraft to Mars and now they are in a race to send the first human into the Mars orbit to conduct various research experiments. But in order to have long-term space inhabitation to conduct research in Mars, maintaining human health and more deeply understanding health challenges in space is very important part of space research program.

You can check my post about 2001 Odyssey longest surviving spacecraft to Mars from Earth.

International Space Station
International Space Station

Astronauts who travel to space are facing various health problems like alterations in DNA and a weakened immune system which are caused by exposure of the human body to many factors in the space environment and also various radiations emitted during the launch of spacecraft which are hazardous to the human body. In space, the human immune system’s function is altered, resulting in a decreased response to extracellular pathogens and a decreased ratio of interferon gamma to interleukin 10 produced by T-helper cells.


Researchers have shown that spaceflight can cause epigenetic changes in DNA, raising the possibility that epigenetic changes triggered by the space environment may be altering the established differentiation process of immune cells and causing the altered immune response observed in astronauts.

First DNA Sequencing in Space by NASA:

The aim of the various experiment related to DNA in space is also aiming to identify the unknown microbes present in space which cause illness and various other health problems to humans who travel to space.

In 2016, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins for the first time in the history of space research conducted the successful DNA sequence in the microgravity as part of the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment in the International Space Station. The 2015 Genes in Space Winner Anna-Sophia Boguraev’s DNA amplification using Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is the first DNA experiment conducted in Space. These experiments will help astronauts to diagnose an illness, or identifying microbes growing in the International Space Station and determine whether or not they represent a health threat.

The Biomolecule Sequencer investigation sent samples of mouse, virus and bacterial DNA to the space station to test a commercially available DNA sequencing device called MinION, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies. Rubins, who has a background in molecular biology, conducted the test aboard the station while researchers simultaneously sequenced identical samples on the Earth. Both the experiment conducted in Earth and ISS has produced the same result indicating that space environment has no effect on the experiment. The large collection of data extracted during Space research experiment are analyzed and the useful data is extracted through the use of a modern analytical technique like Big data analytics. Check out the how NASA uses Big Data analytics to handle his huge amount of data generated each single day.

Genes in Space competition:

The possibilities of understanding whether DNA change and weakened immune system are linked is important for safeguarding crew health, but DNA technology that can track these changes is relatively untested in space. Hence NASA in association with Boeing and miniPCR has started a yearly competition named Genes in Space in 2015 which invites students in grades 7 through 12 to design DNA experiments that address challenges in space faced by astronauts to survive the journey and stay healthy once they arrive.

A Team of expertise will analysis the proposal from Genes in Space finalist and selects the best project which will be sent to International Space Station (ISS) from where NASA’s research scientist will conduct an experiment based on the proposal of the project.

Some of the challenges which are in focus for the competition are:
• Proposing a Polymerase Chain Reaction experiment in space.
• Experiments focused on detecting the various life forms in space.
• Finding effects of various cosmic radiations on the human DNA of space travelers.
• Finding out the possible microorganisms which have the ability to survive in the space environment.
• Identifying the various factors which induce the molecular changes that impact eyes, bones, other organs of Astronauts.

Eligibility Criteria for the application of Genes in Space competition:

• Applicants must live in the USA and be in grades 7-12
• Applications can be submitted by individuals or teams of up to 4 students
• Applications must be sponsored by an adult educator (e.g. a teacher, parent/guardian, or science enthusiast)
• Applicants must be available to present at the ISS R+D Conference in Washington D.C., July 17-20, 2017 (funding for travel provided)
• Applicants must propose a DNA analysis experiment to be conducted aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and describe what role the ISS and PCR technology play in your experiment.

Scoring criteria are:

1) Identification of an interesting question – 25 points.
2) Clear hypothesis – 25 points.
3) A unique hypothesis regarding the environment of the ISS – 30 points.
4) Creativity in experimental design – 20 points.


Participants will be eligible to learn the subject with the help of dedicated mentors for Genes for space and also will have a chance to win one of the 25 awards.

The winner will receive the below appreciation and awards.

• The winning project will be launched in the International Space Station (ISS).
• The winning team will receive mentorship from Harvard and MIT Ph.D. scientists.
• Will get a chance to participate and present the ideas at a leading space science conference.
• Will become a space DNA pioneer.
• Will receive a free pass to attend Space Biology Camp conducted by NASA.
• Will receive a miniPCR DNA Discovery System for the school, travel awards, and more.

2015 Genes to Space Winner:

Winner: Anna-Sophia Boguraev.

Research project:

Boeing, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), Math for America (MƒA), and miniPCR named Anna-Sophia Boguraev from Bedford, NY, the winner in the first ever Genes in Space competition in 2015. Boguraev was chosen from a competitive group of 330 applications from across the country by a team of experts. Boguraev’s experiment for launched to ISS in April 2016 and was returned to earth on May 2016.

Boguraev’s experiment launched to ISS in April 2016
Boguraev’s Genes in Space 2016 experiment launched to ISS


Boguraev hypothesis mainly focused on epigenetic factor, a change in gene expression rather than genetic code is the main factor behind the change in the Astronauts health. Boguraev is working to determine if the environment astronauts live in, with microgravity and cosmic radiation, adversely affects their immune system. Boguraev’s experiment is to assess if changes in DNA can be detected aboard the International Space Station.

Experiment Procedure:

Anna-Sophia’s first experimental step is to explore whether DNA methylation can be detected in space using a PCR assay. She has sent to the ISS zebra fish DNA in various methylation states. This DNA has already been bisulfite converted on Earth. Astronauts aboard the ISS will seek to amplify this DNA using miniPCR technology, while an identical control experiment will be conducted on Earth. Upon return of sample to Earth, samples have been compared to check if bisulfite conversion followed by PCR amplification can be used to detect changes in DNA methylation in microgravity. This experiment will enable Anna-Sophia to test the methylation state of DNA from astronauts, ultimately helping to identify factors impacting the health of their immune systems directly while in spaceflight. She is working on experiment and results are yet to be announced.

2016 Genes to Space Winner:

Winner: Julian Rubinfien.

Research project:

Julian’s proposal is to uncover new information about accelerated aging in space. Julian’s experiment will examine how measuring Telomeres (A protective caps of the chromosomes which shorten or absent in old age peoples) in space could enable health monitoring of astronauts during long-term missions. Julian’s experiment was successfully launched in April 2017 from the Kennedy Space Center to space aboard through Orbital AKT’s OA-7.

Julian's Genes in Space experiment OA-7 launch at Kennedy Space Center
Julian’s Genes in Space experiment launch at Kennedy Space Center


The first part of the experiment will test if Telomeric DNA can be copied in space. The second experiment will test whether or not “on-the-spot” DNA-based diagnostic tests can be conducted on the ISS. The work will make use of a new colorimetric LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification) method from New England Biolabs to copy and detect specific DNA sequences. The results are arrived using the change in the color of the experimental mixture. Both experiments will use portable miniPCR DNA analysis technology.

What is Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)?









Polymerase chain reaction is an In vitro DNA amplification reaction, which is used to multiply single copy of double-stranded DNA into hundreds of double stranded DNA which are an exact replica of the original DNA, by using Polymerase enzyme and a single stranded 5-10 nucleotide base pair length of primer DNA which acts as a starting point of the DNA amplification. PCR requires a single primer to initiate the amplification in leading and lagging strand of the DNA and requires repeated heating and cooling of reactants.

LAMP (loop-mediated isothermal amplification):

LAMP is an isothermal DNA amplification method that produces large amounts of DNA and can easily be incubated at a single temperature using the miniPCR machine. Colorimetric LAMP involves the inclusion of a pH-sensitive dye that detects the release of protons as DNA is amplified. Unlike in PCR, LAMP method requires 4-6 short Primers and it produces a highly specific short strand of DNAs. Using LAMP method results can be simply analyzed after a 30 min, 65°C reaction: pink is negative and yellow is positive.

What is Colorimetric analysis?

Colorimetric analysis is a method of determining the concentration of a chemical element or chemical compound in a solution with the aid of a color reagent. Colorimetric analysis is conducted using the device called colorimeter. The colorimeter is a device which tests the concentration of the specific solution by measuring its ability to absorb a specific wavelength of light. Calorimetry measurements are made by using a light which passes through a color filter. The light then passes through a little box (cuvette) with the actual chemical substance.

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