June 30th, 2021

Student team publishes on first use of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in space

Experiment was conducted as part of the Genes in Space contest

Cambridge, Mass., June 30, 2021 – The student winners of the 2018 Genes in Space competition have published the results of their pioneering research investigation in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. Designed by Minnesota’s David Li (20), Michelle Sung (19), Aarthi Vijayakumar (20), and Rebecca Li (20), when they were high school students, the study was the first to successfully implement CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology in space.

In this investigation, CRISPR was used to inflict DNA lesions that would mimic genetic damage caused by cosmic radiation. DNA damage puts spacefarers at increased risk of negative health consequences including cancer. Understanding how innate DNA repair mechanisms respond to space conditions is a first step toward designing safeguards for future space travelers.

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Genes in Space 2018 student winners Aarthi Vijayakumar, David Li, Michelle Sung, and Rebecca Li

This study also set a precedent for carrying out complex molecular biology workflows in microgravity. In addition to CRISPR, it involved genetically transforming microbes, amplifying microbial DNA via polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and sequencing DNA. The work was carried out aboard the International Space Station (ISS) by astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague in 2019.

“The ability to perform this all-encompassing, end-to-end investigation is a huge step forward for space biology,” said NASA’s Sarah Castro-Wallace, Ph.D. “This caliber of work speaks to both the exceptional students and the Genes in Space program.” Castro-Wallace and her colleague, Sarah Stahl-Rommel, contributed to the study.

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Astronaut Christina Koch carries out the 2018 Genes in Space winning experiment aboard the International Space Station. Image credit: NASA

This research builds on groundbreaking space biology spearheaded by previous Genes in Space winners. The contest, founded in 2015 by Boeing and miniPCR bio, challenges U.S. students in grades 7-12 to design DNA analysis experiments for space. Winning experiments are carried out aboard the ISS.

“Over the past 3 years, we've worked and watched as an idea we discussed at midnight one day became a fully-fledged experiment conducted on the ISS, and now finally shared with the scientific community,” said Vijayakumar. “This project and process has taught us so much.”

For more information about the Genes in Space contest, visit: www.genesinspace.org.

Media contacts:

miniPCR: Katy Martin, genesinspace@minipcr.com, 781-990-8727