Microbe Breakthrough Paves Way to Identifying Alien Life in Space
Space exploration is largely a process of patience; a space station can only contain so many tools to observe and assess what mysteries lie in its farthest reaches in real time. Now, a team of astronauts has successfully managed to identify and categorize microbes on the space station, without having to send them back to Earth first.
It's a revolutionary achievement in microbiology and space exploration, one that can make space travel much safer and efficient in years to come. And it could substantially improve our ability to identify alien life in space in the future.
The Genes in Space-3 team completed the first sample-to-sequence process in space by first collecting microbial samples, then sequencing and identifying them. The samples were monitored using petri plates, which were touched to various surfaces so that the effects of the surfaces on the samples could be observed.
NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson achieved the unthinkable twice, first transferring cells from growing bacterial colonies on those plates into tiny test tubes. Her team then isolated the sample's DNA to prepare it for sequencing and discover the identity of the unknown organisms—another first in space.
Hurricane Harvey made communication between space and the Huntsville, Alabama command center impossible, Principal Investigator Sarah Wallace had to communicate with them using her personal cell phone.
"Once we actually got the data on the ground we were able to turn it around and start analyzing it," said Aaron Burton, the project's co-investigator. "You get all these squiggle plots and you have to turn that into As, Gs, Cs and Ts."
Those letters translate to Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymine – the four bases that make up each strand of DNA and help decipher where each strand came from. Though they were commonly found on the space station, the validation of those results when the sample returned to Earth meant that the results were the same on the ground as they were in orbit.
The implications of this achievement cannot be overstated. Identifying microbes in space will allow researchers to diagnose and treat astronaut ailments in real time, and greatly assist in timely analyses of DNA-based life on other planets. This also allows them to analyze and understand alien materials in their native environment, opening up boundless possibilities for the discovery of extraterrestrial life.