A high school student from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, took top honors in the 2022 Genes in Space contest with a proposal to study chromosome development aboard the International Space Station (ISS). With the Boeing-sponsored award announced Thursday during the International Space Station Research and Development Conference, Pristine Onuoha now begins the work of refining the proposal into an experiment that will be performed by astronauts aboard the ISS next year.
"Getting the chance to really contribute to the science in space is what is so exciting," Onuoha said. "I just don't have the words."
Onuoha’s proposal looks closely at a part of DNA structure called telomeres that are seen as biomarkers for aging and health changes. Telomeres are at the end of chromosome strands and they protect the strand from fraying or getting tangled. They typically get shorter as people age. In space, telomeres grow much longer than on Earth and researchers want to find out what causes that change. Onuoha will study the topic from the perspective of stem cell development to see how they impact telomere growth.
Since 2015, the Genes in Space contest offers high school students around the U.S. the opportunity to propose molecular-level research that studies the effects of spaceflight on cells in order to help find solutions to the challenges that would face astronauts in the future. As with most physiological conditions, cellular-level changes occur faster in space. Using small devices from co-sponsor miniPCR bio, students can see how DNA chains change in detail while aboard the ISS. Those changes are evaluated to find out ways to diminish impacts on astronauts on future missions to deep space.
Previous research has covered topics ranging from evaluating DNA self-repair processes in orbit to seeing how cells respond to stress such as cosmic rays. An experiment currently underway aboard ISS, from 2021 Genes in Space winner Selin Kocalar, is analyzing biosensor technology that could show a simple way to detect contaminants in water.
The Genes in Space program also performed the first use of the CRISPR gene-editing technology in space during a previous research session aboard ISS. The Genes in Space experiments are often published in peer-reviewed scientific journals in order to make the research and its results.
“We created this to not only give students an avenue to perform science but also to provide research that could help with the real problems that astronauts face,” said Boeing’s Kevin Foley, co-founder of the Genes in Space program.
The program is also evidence of the wider access to space science offered by ISS. Along with Boeing, partners including the ISS National Lab, mini PCR and New England BioLabs, reach out to schools and STEM organizations through the Genes in Space organization to teach students about the science involved and to help them come up with potential proposals. Almost 1,200 students entered more than 600 proposals in this year’s contest. Five finalists presented their proposals to judges who selected the winner.