Since 2000, the International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously occupied and visited by 224 people from 18 different countries. A mechanical behemoth in space, it is physically cut off from the rest of the world. When a person leaves the station you might imagine they take with them whatever personal affects they brought on board, to the naked eye this is a true statement. However, visitors all leave a part of themselves and the planet behind. Unseen microbes cling to our bodies and clothes from the inside and out, we need them to survive so there is no getting rid of them. After 16 years, in orbit the ISS is far from a sterile environment and now has its own microbial ecosystem, this phenomenon is called the Microbiome of Built Environments (MoBE).
To further the understanding of the ISS’s unique environment and space environments in general NASA has partnered with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The Sloan Foundation is accepting proposals for promising postdoctoral projects relating to microbiological research of MoBE. Grant winners will be selected and supplied funding for their projects. As humans travel further into space for longer periods of time, this research will become more important for the health and safety of the astronauts on board. The results from this research will be added to the GeneLab site to be reviewed and accessed by the greater scientific community. GeneLab is an open access database of spaceflight data intended to expand access to molecular and biological research and data collected aboard the ISS.
In related but separate news, researchers on the ISS have successfully sequenced DNA in microgravity for the first time. Using a commercially available device called the MinION, astronaut Kate Rubins tested samples of DNA from bacteria, mouse and viruses sent to the ISS from Earth. The same samples were tested on the ground as a control for the experiment in microgravity. The MinION applies a positive current to a porous membrane in the device, and as the DNA molecules pass through the membrane, the pores are partially blocked and the current changes based on the type of DNA. These changes are unique to each DNA sequence allowing researchers to identify the specific DNA sequence being tested.
Why is this so awesome you ask? Well molecules aboard the ISS or future spacecraft could be properly identified with this technique, from harmless microbes to illness, disease and bacteria. In the distant future it could be used to discover DNA-based life outside of Earth. This gets us one step closer to having full lab capabilities in space, making spaceflight safer and more autonomous. Long distance space travel will only be possible when crew members have all the resources and tools necessary to operate for long time periods away from the resources found on Earth. All of these seemingly small steps get is closer and closer to long term spaceflight, USS Enterprise here we come!