Space to Ground

Boeing-sponsored contest winners study how stress impacts the human body on orbit and on Earth.

June 24, 2020 in Space

For two decades, the International Space Station (ISS) has hosted pioneering investigations that have expanded human knowledge in earth sciences, medicine and technology. The orbital laboratory offers a unique environment for a variety of researchers to test solutions to challenges humans face both in space and on Earth. The annual Genes in Space competition is no exception.

The contest – a collaborative effort of Boeing, miniPCR bio, Math for America, the ISS U.S. National Laboratory, and New England Biolabs – encourages seventh- through 12th-grade students to propose a research question about spaceflight’s impact on organisms using a miniPCR DNA analyzer onboard the ISS.

Researchers have been studying real-world applications for the miniPCR DNA analyzer used for Genes in Space experiments on the International Space Station. The device may serve as a cost-efficient, reliable alternative for point of care (POC) virus-detection efforts during pandemics.

NASA photo

2019 Genes in Space winners Finsam Samson (Stanford University class of 2023) and Yujie Wang (University of California, Berkeley class of 2023) were selected from a pool of nearly 800 applicants to be the latest young scientists to rise to this challenge. The two then-Troy High School (Troy, Michigan) students, along with mentors Deniz Atabay, Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Matt Smith, Ph.D. (Harvard University), collaborated virtually to design an experiment that, when conducted by an astronaut on the ISS, will analyze the impact of microgravity on gene expression.

For years, scientists have been working to understand how gene expression – the way DNA is used to create molecules essential for life – changes in response to the space environment. Samson and Wang’s study will contribute to our knowledge of biological changes on orbit and why some astronauts become susceptible to certain health issues when they return to Earth.

“If we are going to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars, understanding their genetic responses to microgravity will be crucial to keeping them healthy,” Wang explained. “Additionally, this response might mirror the human body’s reaction to extreme stress or other diverse conditions on Earth.”

The experiment’s results may enable researchers to develop personalized medical interventions for astronauts while in space, and therapies for people with stress-related health conditions on Earth.

Samson and Wang are eager for their science to reach the ISS. The launch of their experiment, set to take place later this year, will be a tangible symbol of the ever-expanding capabilities of and access to the orbital lab. Meanwhile, Genes in Space plans to announce the winners of its 2020 competition on August 6.

Remote research and collaboration is not new to Genes in Space: “Experiments are designed by researchers across the nation,” said GiS mentor Matt Smith, Ph.D. (lower right, with Wang, Samson and GiS Program Lead Katy Martin, Ph.D.). "The program is a window into the professional research process.”

Boeing photo