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published on 29 May 2019 in

Astronauts make history by editing yeast DNA in space

The International Space Station (ISS) was recently turned into a biotechnology laboratory where, for the first time ever, astronauts used the CRISPR-Cas9 technique to edit the DNA of brewer’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The purpose of the experiment was to study the effects of exposure to cosmic rays on the human genome and find remedies prior to future journeys to the Moon and Mars.

NASA astronaut Nick Hague working on the Genes in Space-6 experiment which aims to study radiation damage to DNA. Credits: NASA

The experiment, devised by a group of four American students, is part of the “Genes in space” programme and makes it possible to study how, in microgravity conditions, brewer’s yeast cells repair damage to DNA caused by cosmic rays. Space is a place where there are a number of risks for human life, and one of these is indeed induced by cosmic radiation. Although ISS is at an altitude of 408 kilometres and therefore is still protected by the Earth’s magnetic field, the time spent on board, on average 6 months, exposes astronauts to around 30 times the radiation that a human being receives in a year on Earth. For this reason, it is very important to understand how DNA repairs damage caused by cosmic radiation, especially in preparation for a future mission to Mars, which is totally outside the Earth’s magnetic field.

“Our aim,” explained Emily Gleason, one of the researchers who perfected the miniature experimental apparatus for ISS, “is to understand whether DNA repair mechanisms in space are different from those on Earth. With this information,” she concluded, “in the future, we will be able to help astronauts better protect themselves.”

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