On 24th May the OA-9 S.S. J.R. Thompson Cygnus was captured by the robotic arm of the ISS, bringing BEST supplies to the station (Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology). You can watch the capture here on youtube.
The latest supplies will enable NASA scientists to move beyond earlier studies that allowed astronauts Kate Rubins and Peggy Whitson to perform the first DNA sequencing in microgravity, using the stapler-sized Oxford Nanopore MinION. Previously, experiments sequenced organisms that were cultured onboard – an issue because not all of those organisms will grow in a petri dish. This time, the supplies will allow astronauts to examine unknown microbes, for example from swabs on surfaces of the ISS itself, without first culturing them.
The ISS has also received direct RNA sequencing kits. While DNA is often referred to as a source code, RNA shows how that code is being expressed in an organism, and is of great interests to biologists studying human disease. With traditional technologies, RNA is converted to a surrogate molecule – cDNA – before it is sequenced, which can result in the loss of some useful information. The supplies now on the ISS will allow direct sequencing of RNA samples, so that scientists can understand not only the RNA sequence but also methylation – patterns of modification that could impact a number of biological processes.
We’re excited to see how the experiments work out. Watch this space!