While many high school students enjoy participating in their school science fair, some high schoolers are taking their science to a whole new level: the International Space Station (ISS). However, this is no science fair—through the Genes in Space program, students are advancing science and publishing their results in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
The Genes in Space program, founded in 2015 by Boeing and miniPCR bio and supported by the ISS National Laboratory and New England Biolabs, holds an annual student research competition in which students in grades 7 through 12 propose DNA experiments that leverage the unique tools and environment onboard the ISS. The winning proposals are developed into flight projects that are sent to the space station and carried out by the astronauts onboard.
Genes in Space is now accepting applications for this year’s competition, with the winning experiment expected to launch to the ISS sometime in 2023. To learn more about the current competition and other opportunities through the Genes in Space program, visit their website at www.genesinspace.org.
During her time on station in 2019, NASA astronaut Christina Koch worked on a Genes in Space student project that made history. In carrying out the experiment, Koch became the first person to edit DNA in space using CRISPR/Cas9, the revolutionary gene-editing technology that allows researchers to modify DNA at targeted sites in the genome. The Genes in Space-6 experiment—designed and submitted by four high school students—used CRISPR/Cas9 to simulate DNA damage that can occur in astronauts from long-term exposure to space. The results, which showed that DNA could repair itself in space, were published in June in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.
“I remembered when (NASA astronaut) Kate Rubins became the first to sequence DNA in space (in 2016), and then to find out that I would get to do another first in space was really exciting for me,” Koch told CNN. “I was just amazed at the fact that they were high school students putting together something so complicated that required such dedication and scientific prowess.”
This is not the only Genes in Space project making headlines though. Two students that sent Genes in Space experiments to the ISS in 2018 each published their results in the most recent issue of the Journal of Gravitational and Space Research. One of these projects examined the effects of microgravity on the function of the immune system. The other project tested a new way to detect DNA damage from radiation during spaceflight. The results from these experiments could be used to develop new tools for monitoring astronaut health in space.
By giving students an opportunity to do real science in space, the Genes in Space program serves as a powerful tool to inspire the next generation to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
“In addition to the science we bring back to Earth and the exploration and discovery, STEM education and inspiration is really important and has such a positive impact,” Koch told Space.com. “I think this is one of the biggest reasons why it’s so important to have a human spaceflight program.”
Expedition Space Lab is a new tool from the ISS National Lab designed to provide educators with easy access to free ISS-related lessons, activities, and other resources to integrate into their curriculum.
Through Expedition Space Lab, schools, museums, and other educational organizations can access unique content from ISS National Lab Space Station Explorers partner programs and NASA. This content engages students across multiple grade levels in STEM learning designed to inspire future scientists and engineers. For each grade level, there are “missions” sorted by science topic, making it easy for educators to quickly find resources most relevant to their students.
To start incorporating exciting ISS-related resources into your lessons, visit our Expedition Space Lab homepage!