Nasa astronauts and scientists at the International Space Station (ISS) have completed gene sequencing of microbes that were taken as samples from surfaces in the space lab for the first time ever. This was done as part of Nasa's Genes in Space-3 project.
Gene sequencing was carried out on the ISS previously in 2016, noted a report by Science Alert (SA), but they was done with samples prepared on Earth, so scientists knew exactly what to expect. This time, however, it was done with swabs collected in space.
This news is momentous because if DNA sequencing can be done on board the ISS, it would make it easier to diagnose astronaut ailments and to conduct experiments in the unique environment that microgravity affords. Also, if there is any chance of extraterrestrial life in space, it could be quickly confirmed.
So far, it is known that microbes can not only grow, but also thrive both inside the ISS as well as on the outside. But conclusive evidence of them not being from Earth is yet to be established.
The sequencing that the astronauts carried out showed the presence of common germs that are to be expected from humans. The ISS is about as germy as an average home – it's just that the germs there are all carried over from the Earth.
Sarah Wallace, Nasa microbiologist and the project's principal investigator, had said in April last year, "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."
The identification of the microbes was a two-step process, noted SA. First, the samples were taken in various surfaces of the ISS and run through a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) that magnifies the sample and creates several copies of it. This was done by collecting samples in a Petri dish and letting them bloom for a week before transferring them into test tubes inside the "Microgravity Science Glovebox", something that has not been done before in space.
The second step involved the sequencing of the microbes and identifying them. This was done around the time that Hurricane Harvey was active, which blocked communications between the lab on Earth and ISS, noted the report. Peggy Whitson, the astronaut aboard the ISS, had to connect to Wallace's personal mobile phone and the latter provided support as the sequencing was done using a handheld MinION sequencer.
Data was then sent to Houston for further analysis. Wallace said, "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."
While Nasa is yet to reveal exactly what microbes they had found in the lab test, they did mention that they were common germs found in and around where humans live and work. The samples will now be sent back to Earth to confirm if the tests were successful and accurate, the report added.