Students craft space-based genetic tests in contest

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For the first time, a small portable device that lets researchers study DNA in the weightless environment of space will be employed in a student-designed experiment aboard the orbiting International Space Station.

The initial experiments were designed by a 16-year-old Bedford, New York, high-school student, Anna-Sophia Boguraev. The lab device was carried aboard the SpaceX Dragon resupply ship that reached the station last weekend.

The experiments will use a compact genetic analysis machine called a miniPCR, developed at Amplyus, a Cambridge-based startup. It is described as an inexpensive mechanism that brings DNA analysis technology to the masses, according to the miniPCR page set up by the company.

The objective was to create research technology affordable for public schools to use in biology classes. The miniPCR DNA Discovery System costs less than $1,000 and is designed to connect with a smartphone. Some systems are already in use in schools.

“The inventors didn’t have the hands on experience when they were kids,” said Mugdha Narasimhan, the company’s chief experience officer.

To promote use of the technology, which uses a Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, to make many copies of a chosen DNA sequence for analysis, the company joined Boeing and several other organizations to sponsor the Genes in Space contest for students. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, makes up chromosomes which carry genetic information in living organisms.

The competition challenges students in grades seven through 12 to design an experiment that can solve a space-exploration problem through DNA analysis. Last year’s winner, Boguraev, designed experiments aimed at testing the effects of weightlessness and cosmic rays on a person’s DNA, according to contest organizers. The goal is to determine whether genetic changes to DNA and the weakened immune system observed in astronauts are linked, according to New England BioLabs, another contest sponsor.

Results of the experiment could aid in the detection of immune system alterations that lead to increased susceptibility to autoimmune disease, allergies and other health issues that result from spending time in space. That research may be especially useful in dealing with the challenges of long space missions, such as the estimated three-year travel time it would take to reach Mars.

“The more we break the tethers from earth the more we will have to dive into microgravity,” Narasimhan said.

By taking a look at DNA from mice on board the International Space Station she will learn if her experimental method works. From there she will move on to study human DNA in space remotely by using the programmable miniPCR machine.

The competition “is providing an opportunity for kids to engage in real science and be involved in real ways,” said Megan Roberts, the executive director of Math for America, also a sponsor. “Opportunities like Genes in Space are doing a great job.”

The science competition began last year as a way to foster creativity, collaboration and critical thinking among students interested in biology and science. It works to inspire and motivate the next generation of engineers, scientists and astronauts by providing research access to the space station.

Last year there were 330 contestants from across the country covering topics ranging from possible genetic codes of alien life to changes in astronauts’ micro-biomes, or microorganisms in their bodies, before, during, and after spending time in space. This year’s contest entry deadline is April 25.

Once selected, the five finalist teams are paired with world-class mentors to help refine their experiments and their proposal presentations to a panel of scientists, educators and technologists at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference this summer. The panel will select a winner.

“Science is constantly changing,” said Math for America’s Roberts, who believes that both teachers and students must constantly update their subject knowledge and expertise. “Having students work alongside scientists, staying engaged, helps them be part of the scientific discussion.”

The Genes in Space program gives students a place to become part of ever-changing fields of scientific research, Roberts said. She added that it’s unwise to segregate academic learning from applied science when it comes to a child’s education.

Learn more about miniPCR below: