On the 20th of July, a SpaceX Dragon capsule reached the International Space Station. One of the goods that were sent out into space was a DNA sequencer that will be able to analyze the samples taken from other planets and to detect alien life.
The device is called MinION, has a weight of only 120 grams and it’s just a couple of inches long.
The other sequencers that are present on the station can only test known organisms. The MinION will analyze a sample and show the microorganisms or a complete genome.
The new device has small pores that are used to allow ions to go through them. If molecules pass through the pores, the ion flow gets reduced signaling the organic materials.
The small machine does not detect just the DNA. It can also show the presence of a polymer, which is a large molecule that plays an essential role in life. For example, a biological polymer can take the form of proteins or DNA or nucleic acids.
The scientists hope to detect alien life, which should be similar to our own, and it should contain chains of polymers. If alien life is composed of a different type of chemical structure, the researchers will simply not find it.
“This one piece of equipment might do a lot for us, in terms of exploration, research and crew health-related issues,” said Sarah Wallace, a NASA microbiologist and member of the MinION experiment.
The leading researcher of the MinION experiment explains that the space project will look for life forms similar to our own, as Mars used to have water and it suffered from asteroid crashes that might have bought the same chemical compounds as Earth did. The scientists want to see if the same conditions that led to life on our planet created different organisms on different planets.
A second role of the DNA sequencer will be to evaluate the physical status of the ISS crew. Even if NASA tries not to send microbes into space, the event is unavoidable.
On the International Space Station, the water is made of recycled urine and condensate, sweat and exhaled breath, which increases the risk of pathogens. NASA ships a large variety of disinfectants, biocides, and antibiotics on the ISS, but there are times when the microbes just thrive on their own. An example is when a wet towel created a green pellicle on one of the separating walls.
As until now, all samples had to be taken back to Earth in order to be analyzed, a DNA sequencer on board the spaceship may help reduce the time and make a health intervention more efficient.
The MinION had already been used in Liberia to detect Ebola, and all the technical inventions used on the ISS are supposed to be adapted and also used on Earth.
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