UVM’s Novel DNA Extraction Technology Goes to Space

November 6, 2023 by Angela Ferrante

UVM’s Novel DNA Extraction Technology Goes to the International Space Station: Tighe, Tracy, and Dragon to Support ISS Astronauts’ Experiments

UVM’s Novel DNA Extraction Technology Goes to the International Space Station: Tighe, Tracy, and Dragon to Support ISS Astronauts’ Experiments

Tighe, Tracy, and Dragon to Support ISS Astronauts’ Experiments


Scott Tighe, Technical Director for the Advanced Genome Technologies Core, Julie Dragon, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and the Director of Vermont Biomedical Research Network (VBRN) Data Science Core, and Kirsten Tracy, Ph.D., senior scientist in the Vermont Integrative Genomics Resource Core (VIGR), are set to spearhead a payload mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from the Kennedy Space Center on the evening of November 9, 2023, pending favorable weather conditions. The payload will dock and be delivered to the ISS the on the morning of Saturday, November 11. Known as the µTitan (pronounced “micro-Titan”) project, it has two primary objectives: benchmarking the use of hermetically sealed microgravity compatible extraction cassettes for automated DNA extraction in space and investigating the efficacy of a novel DNA sample preservative to help eliminate the need for cellular-based samples to be returned to Earth in cold storage.

The partnership between UVM and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), established in 2014 by UVM’s VIGR lab and Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Ph.D., senior research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helps address crucial needs for the purposes of planetary protection—including DNA technologies in space. This mission, SpaceX CRS-29, encompasses 60 separate payloads, ranging from physical hardware development to an array of life science experiments—including UVM’s µTitan payload. This project was funded through a NASA-EPSCoR grant, led by Director of Vermont Space Grant Consortium/NASA EPSCoR Chip Cole, which is designed to support research at smaller research institutions.

The µTitan system is a novel automated DNA extraction system, created by Season Wong Ph.D., co-founder of AI Biosciences and initially tested by JPL and UVM in remote field locations as proof of principle. The system has two components: a zero-gravity compatible DNA extraction cartridge that contains hermetically sealed reagents (substances or compounds added to a system to cause a chemical reaction) and an automated, 3-axis magnetic probe robot that uses magnetics to move DNA from well to well without the need for any direct interaction with the chemistry in the cartridge or chemical exposure to the crew. The UVM and JPL teams further refined the 3-D printed cartridges and robot to allow for minimal crew interactions and ease of handling on the ISS. Tighe and Dragon led the grant proposal that secured funding and deployment to the ISS. Tighe commented, "While seemingly simple, this cartridge design fulfills an essential requirement for the ISS crew to perform DNA extractions in space, and our enthusiasm for this [type] of innovation is evident."

The name "µTitan” reflects its purpose: Microgravity Tested Instrument for Automated Nucleic Acid Extraction, with a nod to Titan, a moon of Jupiter with potential for life.

The technology being studied in this project enables automated extraction of DNA in space. While nucleic acid extractions and handling in space has been done in prior experiments, µTitan is a contained automated system with far-reaching implications, including onboard monitoring of environmental and health-related conditions using techniques such as nanopore sequencing; a method that has been performed numerous times on the ISS. The team’s study design includes understanding the characteristics of DNA before it goes to space and comparing to matched Earth controls, observing any potential changes in zero-gravity conditions or exposure to the DNA extraction chemistry or preservatives.

The mission's Phase I objectives include:

·      Ensuring the functionality of the custom DNA extraction cartridges and novel chemistry in the ISS's microgravity environment, developed with assistance from UVM's Instrumentation and Model Facility and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab.

·      Testing crew handling efficiency and stability of the DNA extraction cartridges in space using microbial reference standards.

·      Assessing the performance of microbial preservatives to simplify sample return without the need for cold storage.

During the deployment, Tracy and Dragon will perform space-to-ground communications with the astronauts from the Huntsville Operations Support Center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Upon completion of the mission, Tighe will retrieve the extraction cartridges and microbial samples when SpaceX Commercial Resupply Mission 29 returns to the Kennedy Space Center in early December.

This mission marks a long-awaited initiative to demonstrate hands-free automated DNA extraction which could someday enable a more comprehensive DNA analysis in space.

“This research is significant because it is integral to the success of future space colonization,” said Tighe. “It hopes to address various space-related challenges, from air quality to plant and food issues, as well as understanding the effects of zero-gravity and long-term space missions.”


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