NASA identifies unknown organisms in space

There is life in space, but we’ve brought it with us. Every time humans travel into the great unknown, there’s the chance our astronauts will bring billions of bacteria along for the ride. Last year, NASA put out a job advert for a “planetary protection officer”, whose job it would be to guard against these types of biological contamination.

Even with a galactic guardian in place, policing microbes is hard work. The International Space Station (ISS) is thought to be home to trillions of bacteria, as well as a handful of humans (and the occasional mouse astronaut). NASA does its best to identify these microbes, but this has meant shipping them back to Earth for study.

Now, NASA’s Genes in Space-3 project has allowed space-bound scientists to identify microbes on the station itself. The project, which was launched in April 2017, involves sequencing the DNA of the unknown microbes. “We have had contamination in parts of the station where fungi was seen growing or biomaterial has been pulled out of a clogged waterline, but we have no idea what it is until the sample gets back down to the lab,” said NASA microbiologist Sarah Wallace, back in April.

To identify the microbes, NASA astronaut and biochemist Peggy Whitson first collected the samples and used the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique to amplify and copy sections of the organism’s DNA.

The next step encompassed the sequencing and identifying of the DNA using the ISS’s handheld MinION device, but there was a problem: Hurricane Harvey. The storm was stopping the microbiologists at the Johnson Space Center from communicating with Whitson, but they managed to create a workaround by patching Wallace’s mobile phone directly into the ISS’ communication system. Thanks to this, Wallace was able to help guide Whitson through the sequencing.

“Right away, we saw one microorganism pop up, and then a second one, and they were things that we find all the time on the space station,” said Wallace.

NASA hasn’t said what specific organisms were identified, but that they were common, known microbes. The samples were sent to Earth for the team at the Johnson Space Centre to confirm the results, which they did.

It marks the first time a sample had been taken from space, and tested in space. A set of microbes had previously been sequenced on the ISS by Kate Rubins in 2016, but these samples had been pre-prepared on Earth.

The ability to test organic samples without having the ferry them back to Earth will greatly speed up the process of analysis. This could help with on-board disease diagnosis, as well quickening the identification of potentially alien life forms.

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