KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (FL), June 1, 2023 – Much like shoelaces have plastic tips on them to prevent fraying, our chromosomes are capped with structures called telomeres—sections of DNA that protect the chromosomes from damage. These protective caps typically shorten as we age, which is associated with aging-related disease. However, research has shown that telomeres lengthen during spaceflight, but shrink when astronauts return to Earth. To better understand why this happens and what role it plays in the aging process, high school student Pristine Onuoha turned to the microgravity environment of space.
As part of an investigation supported by the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory, Onuoha designed an experiment to test a method that could measure telomere lengthening in space. Her project, which is part of the Genes in Space™ program—an annual student research competition founded by Boeing and miniPCR bio to develop experiments that use biotechnology to address spaceflight challenges—is launching on SpaceX’s upcoming 28th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission to the orbiting laboratory.
“I thought that if we can understand how and why astronauts age differently in space, that it could have implications for health care here on Earth,” Onuoha said. “The experiment also has the potential to help research involved in detecting genetic deletions or insertions in organisms in space, which is beneficial since being in space is known to accelerate one’s risk for developing genetic mutations.”
In her project, Onuoha started out trying to understand the mechanisms behind telomere lengthening, which could improve our understanding of aging, cancer development, and how the body heals itself. But soon, she broadened her focus to developing a means of measuring DNA length in space, which could expand the capability of the space station by enabling a broader range of investigations.
Onuoha’s experiment will utilize two pieces of hardware in the Genes in Space™ tool kit on station: a miniPCR machine, which amplifies DNA through a process called polymerase chain reaction, and a fluorescence viewer that is designed to help visualize certain biomolecules.
“As the concentration of DNA increases through this amplification, the brighter it should fluoresce in our viewer,” she said. “We hypothesize that the longer a strand of DNA is, the brighter it will fluoresce, which will help researchers establish differences in DNA.”
SpaceX CRS-28 is targeted for launch no earlier than June 3 at 12:35 p.m. EDT. This mission will include multiple ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. To learn more about all ISS National Lab-sponsored research on this mission, please visit our launch page.
Download a high-resolution photo for this release: Pristine Onuoha
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About the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory: The International Space Station (ISS) is a one-of-a-kind laboratory that enables research and technology development not possible on Earth. As a public service enterprise, the ISS National Lab allows researchers to leverage this multiuser facility to improve life on Earth, mature space-based business models, advance science literacy in the future workforce, and expand a sustainable and scalable market in low Earth orbit. Through this orbiting national laboratory, research resources on the space station are available to support non-NASA science, technology and education initiatives from U.S. government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) manages the ISS National Lab, under Cooperative Agreement with NASA, facilitating access to its permanent microgravity research environment, a powerful vantage point in low Earth orbit, and the extreme and varied conditions of space. To learn more about the ISS National Lab, visit www.ISSNationalLab.org.
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