NASA Is Sending A DNA Sequencer To The ISS And It Could Identify Alien Life

Astronauts could take the device to Mars in the 2030s.

15/07/2016 11:14 | Updated 15 July 2016
Mark Garcia, NASA

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is set to deliver a number of important packages to the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday.

The centrepiece is a handheld DNA sequencer that will enable crew to investigate bacteria around the station and prove that DNA testing can take place in space.

If it works effectively, it could also help detect DNA-based alien life elsewhere in the solar system.

But its primary purpose will be to identify, in near real-time, microbes and diseases, while assessing crew members’ health as they spend prolonged periods in space.

Water on the ISS is recycled, including the water found in urine, condensate and sweat. The sequencer could help the crew to find out if it is “microbially clean”.

Sarah Wallace, the manager of the sequencing project, told Gizmodo: “We want to know in a more real-time way is that water processor working.”

One of the most pressing concerns for the team onboard is identifying a strange fungus growing inside the ISS, a task they hope the sequencer can assist with.

Oxford Nanopore Technologies

But the most exciting possibility is the opportunity for astronauts to take the sequencer out into space to identify alien life.

NASA is hoping to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. It is hoped that astronauts would be able to take a modified version of the sequencer with them in order to investigate organisms that might not contain DNA.

Aaron Burton, the lead of the sequencing project, told Gizmodo: “It doesn’t have to be DNA that you’re sequencing, it could be closely related molecules.”

“RNA is one we have on earth, but you could also envision having different sugars with different nucleobases. You could look for a whole range of information from molecules and people are starting to look at protein sequencing with it, too.”

But there’s a benefit for people back home too. Having a sequencer in space could help scientists understand of how genes work. The scientists have pointed to the possibility of learning how gene expression occurs in the bacteria of salmonella, knowledge of which could lead to the development of a vaccine.

The DNA sequencer is, however, just one of the packages set to be delivered on Monday. Another arrival to court attention is the first of two international docking adapters.

The tool will provide a means for commercial spacecraft to dock to the station when transporting astronauts in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, according its website

The Commercial Crew Program sets out to achieve “safe, reliable and cost-effective access” to and from the International Space Station. 

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