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DNA Sequencer Sent to Space, Could Detect Alien Life

Jul 19, 2016 02:46 AM EDT
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A SpaceX cargo ship sent to the International Space Station (ISS) also contained a DNA sequencer, NASA said.

NASA authorities said that the device was sent into orbit, along with other items for the crew, to help astronauts monitor their own health.

The Biomolecule Sequencers, which were developed by UK-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies, are designed to determine whether DNA sequencing is possible in microgravity. Moreover, the devices could identify microbes and detect potential causes of illnesses.

Interestingly, the sequencers could also possibly detect life elsewhere outside Earth, NASA said in a press release.

"Each commercial resupply flight to the space station is a significant event. Everything, from the science to the spare hardware and crew supplies, is vital for sustaining our mission," Kirk Shireman, NASA's ISS program manager, said in a statement.

"With equipment to enable novel experiments never attempted before in space, and an international docking adapter vital to the future of U.S. commercial crew spacecraft, we're thrilled this Dragon has successfully taken flight."

The sequencer, which is called miniON, is only about 9.5cm long and weighs 120 grams, compared to their microwave-sized counterparts on Earth. According to Sarah Wallace, a microbiologist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, this device could also help researchers conduct experiments on "extreme and bizarre" samples from space.

"In the past, we've had visible fungi growing on the ISS, and we want to know what that fungi is," Wallace said in a report by News.com Australia.

"Is it benign or something to be concerned about? Knowing what it is, the microbiologists can recommend what to do to deal with the issue."

The device reveals the order of chemical building blocks along a strand of DNA. This sequence contains the hereditary information that is passed from one generation of organisms to the next.

The sequencer, which is also being used by over 1,000 scientists in 30 countries, could also theoretically help astronauts detect life on other planets real-time. However, scientists said that further developments are required for this application to be a reality.

According to scientists, the DNA sequencer will remain on board for possible further use, which includes identifying the off-chance of an infectious outbreak.

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