For many families back then, a launch was a special time to gather around the TV to watch the take-off and splashdown. I remember the low points and high points. The launch pad accident of Apollo 1 on January 27, 1967, when 3 astronauts died. When we lost contact for a short time with the crew of Apollo 8 as they rounded the dark side of the moon, Christmastime 1968. And of course I watched, from summer camp, in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong, of Apollo 11, took his famous one giant step onto the lunar surface.
Meanwhile, TV fed the space fever of scientists-to-be. From 1965 to 1968, Lost in Space chronicled the adventures of the Robinson family and their crew and lovable robot, derailed from their destination to the third planet in the Alpha Centauri star system thanks to stowaway Dr. Smith. It was silly, a little like Gilligan’s Island goes celestial. But with Apollo flights blasting up at regular intervals, it didn’t seem all that impossible.
Star Trek reruns sustained me through college in the 1970s, and then in 1977, grad school, came Star Wars. My brain re-emerged from the fog of young motherhood to the The X-Files from 1993 to 2002. And now I can’t wait for the film version of The Martian. The book, by Andy Weir, is amazing.
Because of the importance of space exploration in sharpening my own scientific senses, I was thrilled to learn about the first Genes in Space competition, sponsored by Boeing, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Math for America, and miniPCR.
Hundreds of students in grades 7 to 12 sent in their ideas for experiments that use DNA analysis to solve a real-life space exploration problem. After researchers from MIT and Harvard help the five finalist teams prepare their experiments for space travel, the students will present their proposals at the International Space Station (ISS) Research and Development Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, July 7-9, and the winner will be announced. The winner(s) will watch the launch that will take their idea 250 miles above the Earth, to come to life aboard the ISS.
Here are the five finalists, with information from their terrific proposals. Congratulations!
DETECTING DNA DAMAGE FROM COSMIC RADIATION
Jaclyn Shuttleworth, Jon Hamilton, and Sarah Golden, future doctors from Braintree, MA, are interested in the effects of radiation exposure on health. Astronauts going to Mars and beyond may face this problem, despite protection by the Van Allen belts. The students will assess double-strand DNA breaks in plasmid DNA before and after the exposure, and place samples in different locations on the ISS.
“Using this simple system, we hope to identify structures and parts of the ISS that already offer some passive shielding from this radiation, as well as parts of the station that increases risks through secondary radiation from the interaction between the station and the radiation. This information may then guide the design or use of future deep-space vehicles,” they wrote.
THE IMMUNE RESPONSE
Anna-Sophia Boguraev, of Bedford, NY, plans to assess effects of microgravity and cosmic radiation aboard the ISS on the methylation patterns that alter cytokine gene expression in T cells. Identifying such epigenetic changes could “provide a potential therapeutic target for improving immune system function in astronauts,” she wrote.
The protocol will parse the effects of exposure to microgravity and radiation, and explore the interaction. The approach “will also help understand how to modify the logistics of future flights to better protect astronauts and eventually, as epigenetics drives embryonic development, their children, both on earth and in space.”
Anna-Sophia wants to study biochemistry. She began with a science fair project in elementary school, when she extracted DNA from vegetables using a blender.
Tarun Srinivasan, of Houston, TX, plans to examine effects on the gut microbiome of spending time on the ISS. Do microbiome changes against the backdrop of waning immunity in space increase susceptibility to bacterial infection? Because microbiome changes underlie or accompany many diseases, “this study is relevant in that it addresses the health of the individuals who venture into the final frontier,” Tarun wrote.
Tarun has developed a schedule to frequently collect stool samples from the astronauts before departure, during space travel, and after. Analysis will consider age, gender, medication usage, alcohol consumption, diet, and exercise as well as the taxonomic profiles of gut microbiome residents.
“Since the beginning of time humanity has been asking ‘are we alone?’ If life is found elsewhere it would affect all of humanity. Because it is unknown what may be encountered, it is crucial that all nucleotide bases that are available be examined,” wrote Alyssa Huff of State College, PA.
Alyssa’s experiment will test the ability of miniPCR to identify “unnatural base pairs” in the genetic code of organisms or viruses that the ISS may encounter. “The DNA or RNA of extraterrestrial life may have different nucleotides then the DNA/RNA of Earth’s life,” she wrote. Her experiment will test whether miniPCR can amplify such different DNA as well as reverse transcribe RNA into cDNA.
(The experiment assumes that a nucleic acid is the basis of the instructions for life beyond Earth. I’m reminded of the silicon-based Horta detected on Janus VI on the original Star Trek. However, the Horta and her eggs will not be detected until 2267.)
Alyssa hypothesizes that biochemical traces of life will most likely come from the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, consistent with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Jonathan Change and Thiago Bandeira, of Sammamish, WA, are fascinated by OU-20 bacteria, microbial residents of cliffs from an English fishing village that famously survived on the outside of the ISS for 553 days.
Does genetic change enable these bacteria to survive exposure to cosmic radiation? The students plan to subject several species of bacteria to space conditions and then analyze shared genes using PCR and sequencing.
Congratulations to all teams who entered the competition– you are all winners!
UPDATE: Congrats to Anna-Sophia Boguraev, the winner!