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Virus-hunting astronaut to test British DNA device

Published 14/07/2016

Astronaut Kate Rubins, pictured with Expedition 48 commander Jeff Williams aboard the International Space Station, will attempt to complete the first full-blown DNA sequencing in orbit (Nasa/AP)
Astronaut Kate Rubins, pictured with Expedition 48 commander Jeff Williams aboard the International Space Station, will attempt to complete the first full-blown DNA sequencing in orbit (Nasa/AP)

The first virus-hunter in space is all set to conduct cosmic DNA research.

Newly-arrived space station astronaut Kate Rubins will attempt to complete the first full-blown DNA decoding, or "sequencing", in orbit with a British-made pocket-size device that should be delivered next week.

"We're really interested in how this works in microgravity. It's never been done before," she said, four days after arriving at the International Space Station.

She said the benefits of DNA sequencing in space were huge and could also prove useful in remote locations on Earth.

The device will arrive at the orbiting lab on the next SpaceX delivery. Lift-off is scheduled for early Monday morning from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Trained as a professional virus-hunter, Ms Rubins travelled to Congo for her research before becoming an astronaut in 2009.

She wore top-level biosafety suits for her work with Ebola, smallpox and other deadly viruses on Earth, but will not need such extreme precautions when she fires up the device in space.

At the space station Ms Rubins will be working with harmless test samples - bacteria, a virus and a mouse genome.

"We've got a lot of safety folks on the ground making sure that nothing dangerous gets on board," she said.

Researchers initially wanted to fly "extreme and bizarre" samples, but decided to stick with well-sequenced, well-understood genomes for easy comparison, said Sarah Wallace, a microbiologist at Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas.

Control tests will be conducted on Earth, with the team including aquanauts who will move into an underwater habitat next week off the coast of Key Largo, Florida. The machine is already commercially available.

A DNA sequencer reveals the order of chemical building blocks along a stretch of DNA. That sequence contains the hereditary information that's passed from one generation of organisms to the next. Among other things, that can be useful to identify and study viruses.

"Altogether, it's an extremely exciting research package and a great capability on board station," Ms Rubins said.

Researchers will better understand bone loss and microbial changes in space, she noted, thanks to this new research.

"But it also actually has a benefit for the Earth-based research as well," she said. "When we do things in a remote environment up here, we can understand how these technologies might work in remote places on Earth that don't have access to good medical care."

Nasa is interested in another potential application: the detection of life. Officials acknowledge more development would be needed for that capability at Mars and elsewhere.

The miniaturised biomolecule sequencer, called MinION by its maker, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, is less than 4ins long and just 4oz including a USB cable. It hooks up to a laptop or electronic tablet.

"Picture your smartphone and cut that in half," Ms Wallace said.

The results will be beamed down following each experiment and analysed by researchers on Earth. Microbiologists are particularly interested in how the liquid test samples will behave in weightlessness, especially if bubbles form.

Although the device is meant to be foolproof and used by anyone on the crew, "we are so fortunate to have Kate up there" to perform the first tests, Ms Wallace said. Ms Rubins was heavily involved with the study from the beginning.

Following the initial £34,000 experiment, the DNA sequencer will remain on board for possible further use - conceivably even for diagnosing astronaut health in the off-chance of an infectious outbreak.

Oxford Nanopore Technologies said the device going to space was the same model already used by more than 1,000 scientists in 30 countries.

Ms Rubins arrived at the space station on Saturday, along with a Russian and Japanese, for a four-month stay, launching from Kazakhstan on a Russian rocket.


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