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Will microgravity mutate liver cell DNA? Genes in Space is going to find out

By Elizabeth Rayne

So far, Earthlings have found out some of what happens to the human body in space, but there is still a universe of questions that remain unanswered.

There could now be an answer to at least one more question. Genes in Space is a program, in collaboration with the ISS and Boeing, which provides an opportunity for junior high and high school students to propose experiments that put human DNA to the test in zero-G. This year’s winner, Kristoff Misquitta, wants to investigate an organ whose reaction to microgravity hasn’t really gotten much attention in the shadow of muscle and brain studies.

Flying this experiment to the ISS on the Northrop Grumman CRS-16 commercial resupply mission (SYFY WIRE was there for the launch) is kind of a huge deal. It is only recently that sequencing genes on the space station has been made possible, and we need to find our more about how the human body reacts in space as we head deeper into the final frontier.

“It’s critical to understand the human condition and how all of its elements react in space,” ISS Public Affairs and Outreach Lead Patrick O’Neill told SYFY WIRE at the launch. “That way we can find out if there are countermeasures or remedies that can be developed on Earth so we can be as safe as possible as we go on longer missions.”

Misquitta, who was a senior in high school when submitted the winning proposition to Genes in Space 8, is now at MIT and teaming up with partners at Harvard to continue his research. This would have all been impossible before 2016. Before that, no apparatus for sequencing DNA existed on the space station until astronaut Kate Rubins made a breakthrough when she performed an experiment using the MinION device (which is smaller than a smartphone and fits in the palm of your hand) on NASA’s then-new Biomolecule sequencer aboard the ISS. It was an anomaly at the time because this type of equipment is usually too bulky for the space station.


DNA studies in space have taken a giant leap even since then. The year after Rubins forever changed how we look at DNA beyond Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts led by Peggy Whitson used both MinION and miniPCR for Genes in Space 3. A PCR or polymerase chain reaction is a technique that uses short DNA sequences which select a part of the genome that scientists want to amplify. This is also being used with Genes in Space 8, along with a new supercomputer developed by HP and Microsoft, which can analyze data in real time.

“Up until recently, one of the biggest issues was that while you can sequence DNA in space, you didn’t really have the ability to look at it in real time, so you had to send it back down to Earth to see what’s happened and evolve your science,” O’Neill said.

What sparked Misquitta’s curiosity was why medications that work as they are supposed to on Earth cannot pull the same thing off in space. He was determined to find out why about a fifth of doses administered in microgravity seemingly had no effect, with symptoms remaining unchanged—something that had gone unsolved for 79 missions. The young scientist thought that the liver enzymes which break down medications might have something to do with it. Enzymes and other proteins had already been proven to undergo genetic changes in space.

If medications aren’t having the same effect on the ISS as they do on Earth, Misquitta thought that maybe the genetic material in liver enzymes was being affected by microgravity in a way that made those enzymes malfunction. He came up with a method of seeing how liver enzyme genes were expressed in space. Astronauts handling the experiment will also have the advantage of seeing genes in fluorescent light with a new fluorescent viewer created by miniPCR bio and Genes in Space. As gene expression levels up, so will an otherworldly glow.

“He wants to evaluate liver cells and then see their morphology during the time they’re going to be on the space station,” O’Neill said of Misquitta. “There’s just a general fundamental query on his end to see how things react and differently on Earth versus an extreme environment like the space station.”

When the experiment returns on SpaceX CRS 23, it may reveal something that could revolutionize medications for future spacefarers.

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