At a Glance
- For the first time, astronauts onboard the ISS used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit DNA in space.
- The student-led experiment, awarded through the Genes in Space competition, used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to create targeted breaks in the yeast genome that imitate damage to DNA caused by radiation.
- Results from the experiment may inform our understanding of DNA repair mechanisms and may lead to improvements in current methods to protect astronauts against cosmic radiation during space travel.
Genes in Space student investigators have succeeded in making history this week, when their experiment successfully used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to edit DNA on the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment, designed to provide meaningful insight on how DNA repairs itself after damage incurred through cosmic radiation, is the first use of this specific gene editing technique in space.
CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) holds the potential to combat a variety of global medical and environmental issues. Its precise gene-editing capabilities have been used in animal models to correct the genetic mutations responsible for cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The technology is also used to address global food shortages by genetically modifying crops to stay fresh longer during long-distance transport. While the technology is still most widely used in fundamental biology research, its potential for therapeutic use is broad, and human trials for some uses are underway. CRISPR has even been suggested for use in animals—to help save endangered species or as a method to modify organs for more successful xenotransplantation, which could ameliorate the organ shortage crisis.
Student researchers David Li, Aarthi Vijayakumar, Rebecca, Li, and Michelle Sung designed the groundbreaking experiment and co-lead the effort, winning the opportunity to conduct research on the ISS National Lab through the Genes in Space competition.
The Genes in Space program, founded by Boeing and miniPCR BioTM and supported through the ISS National Lab, holds a free annual competition for students in grades 7 through 12 to propose pioneering DNA experiments that use the unique environment of the ISS. The winning proposals are developed into flight projects that are launched to the space station. The Genes in Space program is part of the Space Station Explorers consortium, a growing community of ISS National Lab partner organizations working to leverage the unique platform of the ISS to provide valuable educational experiences.
For the experiment, ISS crew members used CRISPR-Cas9 technology to make targeted breaks in the yeast genome that simulate DNA damage akin to damage caused by radiation exposure in space. The crew members then used a miniPCR™ (polymerase chain reaction) machine to make copies of the DNA and the minION sequencing technology on the ISS to read the DNA. The results provide information on changes in the molecular structure of the yeast genome due to the damage imposed by CRISPR, as well as any genetic errors introduced as the DNA attempts to repair the damage.
This first experiment using CRISPR technology for gene editing is an exciting step forward in understanding the mechanics of DNA damage and repair in space. In addition, the entire experimental process took place on station—the DNA damage and repair as well as the sequencing to study resulting molecular changes—setting the stage for future DNA experiments that can be conducted on the ISS to expand our understanding of genetics in space.
As the future of space exploration evolves, results from this study may lead to improved radiation protection for astronauts during long-term spaceflight missions. Long-term space travel and colonization of other planets would expose astronauts to the harsh environment of space for extended periods of time. Life support systems and protective gear will be necessary to shield the human body from long-term radiation exposure and subsequent genetic damage. Knowledge gained through this experiment may offer researchers crucial information about how we might safely navigate future space-based activity.
The use of CRISPR in space is just the latest in a trend of advancing genetics tools in space. In 2016, Kate Rubins sequenced DNA in space for the first time, and the inaugural winner of Genes in Space performed PCR in space for the first time. In September, RNA was sequenced for the first time in space, and now with CRISPR, we have hit another milestone that brings us closer to cutting-edge terrestrial genomics.