Durham Students Fly Science Experiments into Space

Astronaut Dr. Serena Auñón-Chancellor activates the in-space portion of the experiment that Durham students designed. 
Courtesy: NASA

January 4, 2019

Science...In SPACE!

Some science projects that are well done get a gold star from the teacher. Still others are featured at the science fair. There aren’t many that reach 254 miles above Earth on the International Space Station. But that’s where you will find the world’s first genome editing experiment. It was designed by 15 STEM students at Immaculata Catholic School in Durham, NC and Precision BioSciences, also in Durham.

The system was launched aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket on December 5, 2018. Astronauts will perform the first genome editing experiment in space by testing Precision BioSciences' genome editing technology called ARCUS.

Gene editing needs to be tested in a microgravity environment 

Genome editing is being developed to repair genes, develop gene therapies, attack cancer cells and modify genes in plants to develop more productive crops. As the field of genome editing, as well as human spaceflight expands, it is likely that gene therapy may be used, or a genetically modified organism may be generated, in a microgravity environment. The experiment will help determine whether microgravity affects the ARCUS nuclease’s ability to create a specific double-stranded break in DNA.

“These young scientists have designed a fantastic gene editing experiment and I am so proud of them,” said JoAnn Hux, a molecular biologist at Precision BioSciences who has been working with the Immaculata School team. “We hope this will be a first step to making ARCUS genome editing a critical component of future scientific endeavors, including space exploration.”

How the ARCUS gene editing system works

The ARCUS system uses the synthetic enzyme ARC nuclease to attach to a target location on a DNA molecule and then insert, delete, or modify the DNA at that spot. (Think using a pencil to mark a spot on an object that you want to cut. The ARC nuclease is a kind of molecular marker as well as a sharp knife. It marks and cuts.) In the students' experiment, ARC nuclease will be used to cut a DNA plasmid (a ring-shaped DNA molecule) so that it behaves like a linear strand.

The process is just one step in genome editing. The students chose the experiment because it is fairly simple to do and easy to measure. Hux adds that Precision BioSciences’ ARCUS editing technology is well suited for this type of project because it is based on a single, compact protein. The ARCUS nuclease is stable across a wide range of temperatures. It can also be dried down and rehydrated and still be effective. It’s been successfully tested on Earth but has not been tested in microgravity.

“Seeing the students so excited to work with the scientists to create and package the experiment, then watch it launch aboard a SpaceX rocket traveling to the ISS is one of my proudest moments as an educator,” adds Karen Kingrea, STEM director at Immaculata. “As I watched the students sitting in the bleachers waiting for the launch, knowing their experiment was aboard the rocket, I could see in those young faces a real sense of wonder and excitement.” The experiment returns to Earth later this month.

 —Frank Graff 

 Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci NC, a broadcast and online science series.