NASA Johnson Space Center
Aerospace Medicine, DNA, Nucleotides, Reduced gravity environments
Human missions to Mars will fundamentally transform how the planet is explored, enabling new scientific discoveries through more sophisticated sample acquisition and processing than can currently be implemented in robotic exploration. The presence of humans also poses new challenges, including ensuring astronaut safety and health and monitoring contamination. Because the capability to transfer materials to Earth will be extremely limited, there is a strong need for in situ diagnostic capabilities. Nucleotide sequencing is a particularly powerful tool because it can be used to: (1) mitigate microbial risks to crew by allowing identification of microbes in water, in air, and on surfaces; (2) identify optimal treatment strategies for infections that arise in crew members; and (3) track how crew members, microbes, and mission-relevant organisms (e.g., farmed plants) respond to conditions on Mars through transcriptomic and genomic changes. Sequencing would also offer benefits for science investigations occurring on the surface of Mars by permitting identification of Earth-derived contamination in samples. If Mars contains indigenous life, and that life is based on nucleic acids or other closely related molecules, sequencing would serve as a critical tool for the characterization of those molecules. Therefore, spaceflight-compatible nucleic acid sequencing would be an important capability for both crew health and astrobiology exploration. Advances in sequencing technology on Earth have been driven largely by needs for higher throughput and read accuracy. Although some reduction in size has been achieved, nearly all commercially available sequencers are not compatible with spaceflight due to size, power, and operational requirements. Exceptions are nanopore-based sequencers that measure changes in current caused by DNA passing through pores; these devices are inherently much smaller and require significantly less power than sequencers using other detection methods. Consequently, nanopore-based sequencers could be made flight-ready with only minimal modifications.
John, K. K., Botkin, D. S., Burton, A. S., Castro-Wallace, S. L., Chaput, J. D., Dworkin, J. P., … Switzer, C. (2016). The Biomolecule Sequencer Project: Nanopore Sequencing as a Dual-Use Tool for Crew Health and Astrobiology Investigations.