Genes in Space winner Alia Al Mansoori of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and her Harvard MCB mentor, Tessa Montague, have successfully launched their miniPCR genetics experiment into space. It docked with the International Space Station on August 17th, and the experiment was run by astronaut Peggy Whitson just this week.
“Alia was so excited during the launch, and it was infectious,” Montague said. “A few times she said her face hurt so much from smiling. I felt a similar way. I had to pinch myself a few times to remind myself that our experiment was really going on a rocket into outer space.”
Montague and Al Mansoori were paired up as part of the 2017 UAE Genes in Space competition, where UAE students were asked to design a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) experiment to be run on the International Space Station (ISS). Finalists like Al Mansoori were paired with mentors like Montague to refine their experiments, but the two only met face to face right before the launch.
“For a second it was strange to see each other in the flesh when we had only been faces on computer screens, but then it felt totally normal, and it was so fun hanging out in person,” Montague said. “Alia came to Boston just before the launch to help package the samples and send them to the Kennedy Space Center, and then we spent a couple of days in Florida together; going on an amazing private tour of the Kennedy Space Center, preparing for all her media interviews, and then watching the launch itself.”
It was a first not only for Al Mansoori, but for the ISS scientists as well. The experiment was designed to observe the effects of outer space conditions on the genes encoding heat shock proteins (HSPs) in C. elegans. Before the experiment was sent up, Montague and members of the Genes in Space team tested it on Earth and prepared the samples for the trip. Montague thinks that their experiment might be the first example of RNA being converted to DNA in space, as well as the first example of DNA extraction in space.
“Heat shock proteins are usually made under conditions of stress, like heat, to protect the body, but we don’t know if they turn on in the cosmic radiation and microgravity of outer space,” Montague said. “We’re not allowed to collect samples in space at the moment, so our actual experiments are testing whether we can convert RNA into DNA in space as the first step for measuring gene expression, and whether we can detect changes in gene expression in space with semi-quantitative PCR.”
Al Mansoori and Montague’s experiment was in good company on the rocket payload, which brought many experiments to the scientists waiting aboard the ISS.
“I was really impressed with how many experiments were going up to space in that rocket,” Montague said. “Apparently 3/4 of the payload was science experiments. There were some boy scouts at the launch who were also watching their experiment take off, and there were some academic researchers who are trying to crystallize a protein associated with Parkinson’s disease in space. They’re hoping the microgravity will provide the conditions they need for the highest quality crystals.