NASA Designs 3D Printable Tools to Analyze Astronaut Health

If humans are intended for deep space, they have to understand the space environment alters health, including antibiotic resistance and aging.

NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) crew member, Matthias Maurer of ESA, works on inserting samples into the MinION DNA sequencer as part of the Biomolecule Sequencer experiment. Researchers tested the device aboard the analog to minimize unknowns and see how the device worked in various extreme environments. (Image credit: NASA)

A new NASA project could be of assistance. It aims to develop technology used to research "omics" -- fields of microbiology that are crucial to human health. Omics includes research into microbiomes, genomes, and proteomes.

The Omics in Space project is being guided by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The project was funded by NASA's Translational Research Institute for Space Health four years of research. Over that period, NASA expects to create 3D printable designs for instruments on the International Space Station (ISS) that can hold liquids like blood samples without spilling in microgravity. These devices could enable astronauts to examine biological specimens without transporting them back to Earth.

Understanding how bacteria impact crew health, or how genes impact aging and disease, can guarantee the safety of missions to Mars and beyond.

No Overnight Mail in Space

NASA has already examined omics with efforts like the Microbial Tracking 1 experiment, which examined microbial diversity on the space station. Unfortunately, there is no way to process samples on the station at the moment, so they have to be transported back to Earth.

It can be months between the time a sample is taken, and analysis is finished, said Kasthuri Venkateswaran of JPL, chief investigator for the Omics in Space project.

"You don't have overnight mail when you go to space," Venkateswaran said. "You have to do all the analysis by yourself. This project will develop an automated system for studying molecular biology with minimal crew intervention."

One of the significant challenges with preparing samples is managing fluids in microgravity. Astronauts gather a range of samples, including their blood and saliva, as well as microbes swabbed from the walls of the ISS. These samples have to be then blended with water so they can be injected into instruments for testing. Without the appropriate tools, samples can float, spill, or form air bubbles that could mess up the results.

A Big Step in 2016

Last year, NASA took a significant step by sequencing DNA in space for the first time. Astronauts used a miniature, handheld sequencing tool referred to as the MinION, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

Omics in Space will build on this success by creating an automated DNA/RNA extractor which will prepare samples for a MinION device. An essential part of this extractor is a 3D printable plastic cartridge required to extract nucleic acids from the samples for the MinION sequencing.

All of this technology has been analyzed here on Earth, said Camilla Urbaniak, a post-doctoral researcher at JPL and co-investigator on Omics in Space.

"We're taking what's on Earth to analyze DNA and consolidating all the steps into an automated system," Urbaniak said. "What's new is we're developing a one-stop-shop that can extract and process all of these samples."

The Future of Space Health

Earlier omics research has exposed that astronaut immune systems tend to be weaker after living on the ISS. Researchers are not sure why.

The field of epigenetics, which examines how genes are designed -- including how humans age -- could help enlighten how cosmic rays and microgravity impact man’s DNA.

But Omics in Space isn't only about the human passengers who travel to the ISS. There are also microbes, carried by cargo and humans alike, which collect on board spacecraft.

"We need to put together a 'passenger list' of the microbes that ride along to space. Then, astronauts can detect genetic markers revealing whether these microbes are helpful or harmful -- the 'luggage' these passengers are bringing with them.

Nitin Singh, Co-Investigator - JPL

Being able to react to changes in a crew's environment is vital during long space voyages, said Ganesh Mohan of JPL, a co-investigator on the project which will be helping to detect pathogenic microbes.

"You can see whether a possibly harmful microbe is increasing in number in real time. If needed, we could then take actions to counteract those microbes," said Mohan.

The Omics in Space project is funded by NASA's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, which is operated together with the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. The institute is overseen by NASA's Human Research Program.

Caltech in Pasadena, California handles JPL for NASA.

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