Floating in a Tin Can

Helen Hill | EAPS News
Monday, December 4, 2017

The SETG (Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes) team is developing a life detection device that they hope one day to send to Mars – but job one is to try it out under alternative gravity conditions closer to home.

Between about 4 and 3.8 billion years ago, during what is termed the Late Heavy Bombardment, the Solar System was pummeled by a hail of meteors understood to have led to a sharing of material between Earth and Mars. As a result scientists have asked could this have resulted in a shared genetic ancestry between the two planets?

To explore this idea, an interdisciplinary team led by co-PIs Maria Zuber (EAPS, MIT) and Gary Ruvkun (Massachusetts General Hospital, MGH), bringing together researchers and scientists from academia and industry with support fronm NASA, and including Christopher Carr (science PI) and postdoc Noelle Bryan from EAPS, are building an instrument to target nucleic acids (DNA), called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG). The team’s approach integrates automated extraction and sequencing of DNA using the first commercially available nanopore device, the Oxford Nanopore Technologies MinION.

But sequencing samples under extraterrestrial environmental conditions rather than on a lab bench anchored to the Earth brings its own unique engineering challenges, first among them, how to sequence under non-Earth-like gravity?

A NASA team tested an earlier version of the nanopore technology during parabolic flight and on the International Space Station but recently Zuber and Bryan themselves were able to test the latest iteration of the sequencing technology, which has updated chemistry, flow cells, and software, in combination with high resolution acceleration and vibration measurement.

The flight, which took place on November 17th, was the inaugural research deployment of the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration initiative (launched in March 2017 with their Beyond the Cradle event.) Twenty researchers from the MIT Media Lab and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences boarded a zero gravity flight in Sanford, Florida with 90 minutes to spend studying the effects of a zero-gravity environment on a range of research from asteroid grappling, to self-assembling space architecture, to music and performance, to sensory and emotional responses.

The flight comprised 20 parabolas, with periods of hypergravity on the incline and decline and spans of lunar, Martian, or microgravity over the top of each parabola. Because each zero gravity period only lasted 20-30 seconds, the researchers had only moments to run their experiments.

Despite these challenges Bryan, Zuber, and Carr were able to assess the impact of the g-level and vibration on sequencing, as well as successfully perform sequencing during both simulated Mars and lunar gravity for the first time.