In August 2016, DNA was successfully sequenced in space for the first time ever. This monumental experiment signaled the advancement of space research and opened the possibility for new space biology investigations. While the news of this successful experiment echoed throughout the scientific community, a new champion and ambassador for space research emerged—Astronaut Kate Rubins.
As a trained biologist, Rubins, known to the internet as #AstroKate, performed the first DNA sequencing in space among many other scientific contributions during her mission aboard the International Space Station including culturing beating heart cells and working on drug development studies sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. As the science research progressed during her mission so did her celebrity among the space research community and other networks. Viewers can easily see from this NBC interview of Rubins while on the space station that “AstroKate” raises the bar for the role of a space ambassador. Rubins’ natural speaking ease, inspiring space successes, and charisma matched with her keen ability to break down highly technical topics into understandable topics have all led to her becoming a space celebrity.
Let’s dive down a bit to gain a better understanding of this monumental achievement. What exactly is DNA sequencing? Simply put, DNA sequencing identifies an organism’s “blueprint,” meaning it’s the process used to determine the precise order of the four chemical building blocks in a single DNA strand. Through these “blueprints,” scientists advance research such as identifying the genes responsible for certain genetic diseases.
Now back to the history-making lab experiment aboard the ISS. #AstroKate used a hand-held, USB-powered DNA sequencer called the MinION to determine the DNA sequences for a mouse, bacteria, and a virus. The goals of these DNA sequencing experiments were to provide evidence that DNA sequencing in space is possible, which holds the potential to enable the identification of microorganisms, monitor changes in microbes and humans in response to spaceflight, and possibly aid in the detection of DNA-based life elsewhere in the universe.
Rubins worked on the Heart Cells investigation where human skin cells were induced to become stem cells, which enables them to differentiate into any type of cell. Researchers forced stem cells to grow into human heart cells, which Rubins cultured aboard the space station for one month. Rubins described seeing the heart cells beat for the first time as “pretty amazing.”
See for yourself! This this time-lapsed video of heart cells beating in space. You can clearly see the heart cells because a microscope projects the miniscule images onto a video screen, which also visually contrasted heart cells beating in space to heart cells beating on Earth. Those cells were returned to Earth in August by SpaceX for analysis by scientists. This experiment may improve heart health on Earth and in space.
How did Rubins launch her awe-inspiring, stellar career? With a child’s dream. Kate Rubins imagined becoming an astronaut and a scientist as a child, and today those childhood dreams are a reality. Prior to NASA, the self-described “former virus hunter” earned a doctorate in cancer biology from Stanford University. Rubins was selected in 2009 for the 20th NASA astronaut class after helping develop the first smallpox infection model for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The future shines brightly
#AstroKate makes an ideal ambassador to champion, inspire, and educate people about space, biomedical research, and leadership. Rubins’ ground-breaking scientific accomplishments and scientific credentials are a perfect pairing with her down-to-earth and charismatic personality.
We, at the ISS National Lab, are proud she will serve as a keynote speaker at the 2017 ISSR&D Conference.