DNA Sequencer to Space?

A DNA sequencer that was just delivered to the International Space Station can test not just known Earthly organisms.

Turns out, the little device may also be able to analyse  samples taken from alien life, NASA said.

The SpaceX Dragon capsule met up with the International Space Station (ISS) early yesterday morning (July 20), after being launched aboard the Falcon 9 rocket on July 18.

A robotic arm at the International Space Station
captures an unmanned Dragon space capsule
as it delivered supplies, including a DNA sequencer,
to the outpost’s crew on July 20, 2016.
Credit: NASA TV

Among the goods delivered was the MinION – a palm-sized sequencer with a lot of promise that weighs just 120 grams (0.27 pounds).

“This one piece of equipment might do a lot for us, in terms of exploration, research and crew health-related issues,” said Sarah Wallace, a NASA microbiologist and member of the team working on the MinION experiment, in a recent conversation with Live Science.

 Alien DNA?

There are quite a few special features of the MinION – pronounced with emphasis on the “ion,” not like the little yellow creatures from “Despicable Me.”

One that stands out: its ability to examine alien life-forms.

The DNA sequencer
can fit into the palm of your hand.
Credit: nanoporetech.com

According to a NASA statement, others sequencers that are being considered for use in space will only test for known and targeted organisms.

The MinION, on the other hand, will provide analysis of an entire sample, such as all microorganisms in that sample or a full genome. It has very small pores, called nanopores, that allow ions (electrically charged particles) to pass through, creating a current.

If other molecules, such as DNA, pass through these channels, they reduce this current in particular ways.

The reduction in current is then analyzed and can reveal the sequence of the sample.

“It doesn’t actually have to just be DNA that could pass through that pore,” Aaron Burton, space scientist and lead on this experiment, told Live Science.

“All you really need is a polymer that will block the pore going through it.”

This means that it may have the ability to detect alien life that is similar but not quite the same as our own.

Aaron Burton explained that experts generally believe that, if there is life on Mars, it probably shares some basic features with our own. Mars ‘had’ water, it used to have more of an atmosphere and our worlds have traded meteors.

This means that, whatever life-forms each planet has, those organisms are likely to have a common ancestor. Mars may not have DNA-based life, but, if it has something close, MinION might be the best bet at finding it.

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Ragnar Larsen