UVM researchers’ DNA extraction tool blasts off for use by NASA

Published: Nov. 16, 2023 at 3:56 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 16, 2023 at 5:08 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - University of Vermont researchers have been working with NASA to develop new technology that could help pave the way for future long-haul space flights and exploration. And this past week, they saw their hard-earned work blast off.

Last Thursday’s blast off of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center was a moment that University of Vermont genomics researcher Scott Tighe had been counting down to for years.

“After three years of working on this and thinking about it 24 hours a day, when you finally see that payload go up, the relief is unbelievable,” Tighe said. “It’s like, wow, it’s there. But more importantly, was when it docked, and it’s like OK, it made it there safely. And you feel like the project’s done, but it’s only just begun.”

That project is called µTitan, or Micro-Titan, and Tighe says it could help pave the way for future space travel. “If we’re going to go to Mars, we’re going to have to analyze many things --human health, food, the microbiome of space capsules,” he said.

NASA realized that it needed a way for astronauts on the International Space Station -- and beyond -- to extract DNA -- in an automated way. The UVM Larner College of Medicine genomics lab team worked with NASA to design a robot to do that. Magnets and hermetically-sealed cartridges make sure samples and astronauts don’t get contaminated. “The crew never gets exposed to any of the chemistry or the elements that are in it,” Tighe said. Out the other end comes DNA ready for sequencing. Right now, most samples are frozen and sent back to Earth for that. It can take weeks. The goal is to be able to do that efficiently in space in a matter of hours. “They can do their own science on the space station.”

UVM's Micro-Titan project on board the ISS.
UVM's Micro-Titan project on board the ISS.(WCAX)

It took 54 tries to get the cartridge design right. In part because Micro-Titan had to hold up in zero gravity. “It’s easy to do DNA work when you have gravity, and the challenge becomes when you take gravity away, liquids don’t behave like they do when you’re on the ground,” Tighe said.

They took inspiration for the sample wells from the coffee cups used now on the space station. Each component was from scratch and tested in NASA’s zero gravity simulators. Now, for the 21 cartridges they sent up to space, it’s the moment of truth.

“We have to step them through each piece,” said Kirsten Tracy, a UVM researcher who will be walking astronauts through the process of how to use the Micro-Titan equipment in just a couple of weeks. “It’s pretty exciting. I have to admit, right? It’s cool. We’re excited. It’s a little nerve-wracking. You don’t want to mess up and say the wrong thing to them,” Tracy said.

“And I get to tell my kids, I get to talk to astronauts, right?”

And for Julie Dragon, director of the Vermont Integrative Genomics Resource Core, it helps reinforce that there’s a lot of expertise and innovation in a rural state like Vermont when it comes to future partnerships with NASA. “It enables us to have a seat at the table of some really cutting-edge science,” she said.

The astronauts will be using the equipment on Dec. 1 and the experiment returns to Earth on Dec. 15. The UVM team will go to collect the samples and then sequence them. They hope to do a phase 2 project -- sending the entire system up to the space station -- in the future if NASA is on board with the idea.