Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Technology
Networks
Scientific Communities
 
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article
  News
Return

Detecting DNA in space

Published: Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Last Updated: Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Bookmark and Share
Researchers, in a step toward analyzing Mars for signs of life, find that gene-sequencing chip can survive space radiation.

If there is life on Mars, it’s not too farfetched to believe that such Martian species may share genetic roots with life on Earth.

More than 3.5 billion years ago, a blitz of meteors ricocheted around the solar system, passing material between the two fledgling planets. This galactic game of pingpong may have left bits of Earth on Mars, and vice versa, creating a shared genetic ancestry between the two planets.

Such a theory holds great appeal for Christopher Carr, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Working with Gary Ruvkun at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Maria Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and MIT’s vice president for research, Carr is building a DNA sequencer that he hopes will one day be sent to Mars, where it can analyze soil and ice samples for traces of DNA and other genetic material.

Now in a step toward that goal, Carr and colleagues at MIT, Harvard University and MGH have exposed the heart of their tool — a DNA-sequencing microchip — to radiation doses similar to those that might be expected during a robotic expedition to Mars. After exposure to such radiation — including protons and heavy ions of oxygen and iron — the microchip analyzed a test strain of E. coli, successfully identifying its genetic sequence.

Carr says the group’s results show the microchip can survive up to two years in space — long enough to reach Mars and gather data there for a year and a half.

“Over time on Mars, a chip’s performance could degrade, reducing our ability to get sequence data. The chip might have a higher error rate, or could fail to function at all,” Carr says. “We did not see any of these issues [in our tests]. … Once this chip has been through two years of a Mars mission, it still will be able to sequence.”

The researchers reported their results in a paper published in the journal Astrobiology.

Simulating a solar storm

Any life on Mars, past or present, would have to be extremely resilient: The planet’s atmosphere, made mostly of carbon dioxide, is 100 times thinner than Earth’s, providing very little warmth. Temperatures can plummet to minus 195 degrees Fahrenheit.

On the other hand, the deep subsurface of Mars is not much different from that of Earth, which is known to harbor microbes. Results from the Curiosity rover, currently exploring Mars, suggest that beneath the planet’s surface lies a dry and cold — but otherwise likely benign — environment, with all the major elements required for life.

To detect such subterranean life, a DNA-sequencing instrument on the surface of Mars would have to withstand temperature swings and steady exposure to space radiation. Such exposure could cause chips to report false positives, for instance, or to record extra bases in DNA sequences.

Carr and his colleagues tested the effects of Mars-like radiation on a commercially available sequencing chip. The tested chip contains 1.3 million microwells, each of which can hold a single bead containing an amplified fragment of DNA that can be used to generate a DNA sequence.

To test the chip’s resilience to radiation, the team traveled to NASA’s Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Once there, the researchers, working with a total of 40 microchips, first performed electrical testing on 20 chips — a process by which a chip’s gain, voltage and wells are calibrated to verify that the parts are working properly.

Following electrical testing, Carr exposed the chips to various levels of radiation, using a linear accelerator and an electron-beam ion source. The highest radiation dose sustained by the chips was more than they would experience during a two-year mission to Mars.

After the chips were irradiated, the team once again tested the electrical performance of each, and found very little change in the chips’ functioning.

Life on Mars and beyond

In a second round of testing, Carr exposed the remaining 20 microchips to the same radiation levels as the first batch, then took the chips back to his lab and loaded each with DNA fragments from E. coli. Despite their exposure to radiation, the chips were able to analyze DNA and correctly identified the bacterial sequences.

“These chips are great candidates to do sequencing on Mars without any modifications that we know of right now,” Carr says. “We essentially see no impact from radiation. That was a critical thing for us to show.”

Chris McKay, a planetary scientist with the Space Science Division of NASA’s Ames Research Center, says a radiation-resilient DNA-sequencing chip, such as the one used in this experiment, is a promising candidate for future life-detecting missions to Mars and other planets.

The paper by Carr and colleagues “reports on an important step forward on the development of DNA sequencers for planetary missions,” says McKay, who did not contribute to the research. “In addition to being part of the search for life on other worlds, the DNA searcher would be relevant to assessing sites for human exploration.”

In previous studies, Carr and his colleagues have found that the reagents used in DNA sequencing can also withstand similar radiation levels. Taken together, Carr says, the results suggest genetic sequencing may be a viable process in space.

Beyond Mars, Carr says, DNA sequencing may be of interest in places such as Jupiter’s moon Europa, where liquid oceans may harbor signs of life. More promising, Carr says, are places like Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that is thought to be in a potential habitable zone, and that has much less intense radiation.

“I do think we’ll see DNA sequencing in space at some point,” Carr says. “Hopefully we’ll get a chance to be a part of that.”


Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,500+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More Than 3,800+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters


Sign In



Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into TechnologyNetworks.com you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Intensity of Desert Storms May Affect Ocean Phytoplankton
MIT study finds phytoplankton are extremely sensitive to changing levels of desert dust.
Tuesday, September 01, 2015
Searching Big Data Faster
Theoretical analysis could expand applications of accelerated searching in biology, other fields.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
Protein Found to Play a Key Role in Blocking Pathogen Survival
Calprotectin fends off microbial invaders by limiting access to iron, an important nutrient.
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
A Metabolic Master Switch Underlying Human Obesity
Researchers find pathway that controls metabolism by prompting fat cells to store or burn fat.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Capturing Cell Growth in 3-D
Spinout’s microfluidics device better models how cancer and other cells interact in the body.
Monday, August 17, 2015
Better Estimates of Worldwide Mercury Pollution
New findings show Asia produces twice as much mercury emissions as previously thought.
Thursday, August 13, 2015
Real-Time Data for Cancer Therapy
Biochemical sensor implanted at initial biopsy could allow doctors to better monitor and adjust cancer treatments.
Thursday, August 06, 2015
Identifying a Key Growth Factor in Cell Proliferation
Researchers discover that aspartate is a limiter of cell proliferation.
Friday, July 31, 2015
Firms “Under-invest” in Long-Term Cancer Research
Tweaks to the R&D pipeline could create new drugs and greater social benefit.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Nanoparticles Can Clean Up Environmental Pollutants
Researchers have found that nanomaterials and UV light can “trap” chemicals for easy removal from soil and water.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Bacterial Computing
The “friendly” bacteria inside our digestive systems are being given an upgrade, which may one day allow them to be programmed to detect and ultimately treat diseases such as colon cancer and immune disorders.
Monday, July 13, 2015
Researchers Develop Genetic Tools to Engineer Common Gut Bacterium
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed genetic parts that can be combined to program the commensal gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron.
Friday, July 10, 2015
Chemists Design a Quantum-Dot Spectrometer
New instrument is small enough to function within a smartphone, enabling portable light analysis.
Friday, July 03, 2015
Longstanding Problem Put to Rest
Proof that a 40-year-old algorithm for comparing genomes is the best possible will come as a relief to computer scientists.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Tough biogel structures produced by 3-D printing
Researchers have developed a new way of making tough — but soft and wet — bio-compatible materials, called “hydrogels,” into complex and intricately patterned shapes.
Wednesday, June 03, 2015
Scientific News
Health Risks of Saturated Fats Aggravated by Immune Response
Research shows that the presence of saturated fats resulted in monocytes migrating into the tissues of vital organs.
Changing the Biological Data Visualisation World
Scientists at TGAC, alongside European partners, have created a cutting-edge, open source community for the life sciences.
NIH Study Finds Calorie Restriction Lowers Some Risk Factors for Age-Related Diseases
Two-year trial did not produce expected metabolic changes, but influenced other life span markers.
Immunotherapy Agent Benefits Patients with Drug-Resistant Multiple Myeloma in First Human Trial
Daratumumab proved generally safe in patients, even at the highest doses.
Low-level Arsenic Exposure Before Birth Associated with Early Puberty in Female Mice
Study examine whether low-dose arsenic exposure could have similar health outcomes in humans.
Inciting an Immune Attack On Cancer Cells
A new minimally invasive vaccine that combines cancer cells and immune-enhancing factors could be used clinically to launch a destructive attack on tumors.
‘Mutation-Tracking’ Blood Test for Breast Cancer
Scientists have developed a blood test for breast cancer able to identify which patients will suffer a relapse after treatment, months before tumours are visible on hospital scans.
Cellular Contamination Pathway for Heavy Elements Identified
Berkeley Lab scientists find that an iron-binding protein can transport actinides into cells.
Intensity of Desert Storms May Affect Ocean Phytoplankton
MIT study finds phytoplankton are extremely sensitive to changing levels of desert dust.
Common ‘Heart Attack’ Blood Test May Predict Future Hypertension
Small rises in troponin levels may have value as markers for subclinical heart damage and high blood pressure.
Scroll Up
Scroll Down
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
 
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,500+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
3,800+ scientific videos
Close
Premium CrownJOIN TECHNOLOGY NETWORKS PREMIUM FREE!