Being able to identify microbes in real time aboard the International Space Station, without having to send them back to Earth for identification first, would be revolutionary for the world of microbiology and space exploration. The Genes in Space-3 team turned that possibility into a reality this year, when it completed the first-ever sample-to-sequence process entirely aboard the space station. Results from their investigation were published in Scientific Reports. The ability to identify microbes in space could aid in the ability to diagnose and treat astronaut ailments in real time, as well as assisting in the identification of DNA-based life on other planets. It could also benefit other experiments aboard the orbiting laboratory. Identifying microbes involves isolating the DNA of samples, and then amplifying – or making many copies – of that DNA that can then be sequenced, or identified.
“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,” said Wallace. “The validation of these results would be when we got the sample back to test on Earth.”
Soon after, the samples returned to Earth aboard the Soyuz spacecraft. Biochemical and sequencing tests were completed in ground labs to confirm the findings from the space station. They ran tests multiple times to confirm accuracy. Each time, the results were exactly the same on the ground as in orbit.