When you think of NASA, you probably think of astronauts and scientists studying planets, stars, and other massive features of outer space. What you may not know, however, is that NASA employs teams of scientists from practically every area of research, including microbiology.
While most microbiologists study the tiny organisms such as bacteria and fungi that live here on Earth, some of them would rather look outside of our planet. In 2017, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, NASA microbiologists Sarah Wallace, and the rest of their Genes in Space-3 team developed techniques to identify microbes in space. These techniques could be used to identify microorganisms in the space station that might be making astronauts sick, or to identify new microbial life on other planets.
With Whitson performing experiments in space and Wallace leading the project from Houston, TX, Genes in Space-3 have adapted common, everyday laboratory techniques for use in the vastly different environment of space. Whitson collected samples from the space station onto petri dishes to grow bacteria, much like you might do in a science class. One major difference: Whitson worked in a special glovebox because the samples would float away without gravity! Within the glovebox, she managed to successfully transfer bacteria from petri dishes into tiny tubes, which had never been done before in space. Whitson then isolated DNA from the bacteria and identified it based on its sequence, which acts like a set of instructions that make the cells of every species unique and identifiable. Scientists in many fields regularly use a process called polymerase chain reactions (PCR) to make lots of copies of DNA, which they can then read with a sequencing device and compare to known DNA sequences to figure out what organism the DNA came from. Whitson’s success in carrying out these experiments in space is groundbreaking. These techniques will allow astronauts to identify microbes right away instead of waiting for their space missions to come back to Earth.