Long stints spent up in the inhospitable conditions of space can have some pretty undesirable effects on the body. Even holed up in the relative safety of the International Space Station for short amounts of time come unpleasantly packaged with increased risk of cancers and heart disease, loss of muscle mass, and more, so long voyages to distant worlds (like many space agencies hope to do one day) would certainly have a variety of negative health impacts on those aboard.
One of the most concerning hazards is the intense radiation present up in space. Radiation is absolutely brilliant at splitting DNA apart, creating dangerous areas of damage called double-stranded breaks. As the body repairs itself through two specific pathways, a host of complications can arise, and it is through this process that DNA mutation can occur.
Now, in an effort to study how astronauts’ DNA gets damaged and repaired, scientists have demonstrated the first case of CRISPR technology being used entirely in space. The incredible feat was conducted on yeast cells and allows scientists an unprecedented look into the DNA repair pathways chosen under space conditions, which was previously impossible due to safety obstacles. The results have been published in the journal PLOS ONE.
"It's not just that the team successfully deployed novel technologies like CRISPR genome editing, PCR, and nanopore sequencing in an extreme environment, but also that we were able to integrate them into a functionally complete biotechnology workflow applicable to the study of DNA repair and other fundamental cellular processes in microgravity," said senior author Sebastian Kraves in a statement.
"These developments fill this team with hope in humanity's renewed quest to explore and inhabit the vast expanse of space."
CRISPR has become the figurehead for medical advancements in recent years, owing to its impressive ability to target specific regions of DNA and modify them, whether that be to insert a sequence or delete one. This ability makes it the perfect tool to induce double-stranded breaks under controlled conditions in space. Previous attempts to do so involved unwieldy technology using radiation, which damaged DNA indiscriminately, making it incredibly hard to follow the repair pathway. Using CRISPR allows the scientists to induce a break and follow how the cells choose to repair the damage.
The experiment was developed by Sarah Stahl-Rommel and colleagues from Genes in Space, who call on students from around the globe to compete in having their experiment performed in space.
This genetic transformation marks the first time CRISPR/Cas9 editing has been performed in space, but also the first time that live cells have undergone intentional genetic manipulation. It was not without serious challenges – performing genetic editing under normal conditions is precise and difficult already, but add in the fact that all reagents and equipment keep floating in zero gravity, and you have quite a tasking experiment.
The researchers do admit that although it is a massive step in understanding genetic repair in space, the double-stranded breaks induced by CRISPR may differ from those that occur by radiation. Utilizing their new process and the breakthroughs in cell transformation, the researchers now hope to mimic the more complex damage brought on by radiation and fully illuminate the effects of long-term space travel on the body.