Irish aquanaut and NEEMO team sequence DNA underwater in major first

25 Jul 2016

Clockwise from top: Matthias Maurer (ESA), Marc Ó Gríofa (Teloregen/VEGA/AirDocs), NASA’s Megan McArthur and Reid Wiseman, Dawn Kernagis (IHMC), and Noel du Toit (Naval Postgraduate School). Inside the Aquarius habitat are Florida International University habitat technicians Hank Stark (left) and Sean Moore (right). Image: NASA/Karl Shreeves

NASA’s NEEMO mission, which sends scientists to live underwater for three weeks conducting experiments for future space travel, has sequenced DNA underwater for the first time ever, with help from an Irishman.

The NEEMO mission – or the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations to give it its full title – is the starting point for many future spacebound technologies that will be designed to work in the depths of a hostile, alien-like ocean.

The current team of scientists living aboard the Aquarius research station includes a number of notable figures, including former astronauts Reid Wiseman and Megan Behnken, who now join an elite club of ‘aquastronauts’ who have been both underwater and out in space.

Another notable addition to the crew – at least from an Irish perspective – is Dr Marc Ó Gríofa, a physician who will be returning to the NEEMO mission as principal investigator, having deployed next-generation medical equipment and technology for non-invasive medical monitoring on a previous mission in the underwater lab.

Just days after the current crew began their three-week stint underwater, there has been a major breakthrough. Wiseman has become the first person in history to sequence DNA underwater, using a handheld DNA sequencer called Minion.

Medical breakthroughs for space and Earth, too

With an identical device being tested aboard the International Space Station (ISS), it’s envisioned that future space-travelling astronauts could use a DNA sequencer to analyse organisms both familiar and alien.

Meanwhile, speaking with before the mission, Dr Ó Gríofa explained his part in the mission. He and his fellow aquanauts are working on continuing the development of advanced telemedicine equipment for future spaceflight missions, and of non-invasive medical equipment that can also be used in conventional medicine.

“Investigating telomere regeneration technology could have significant implications for astronaut health on a long-duration mission outside earth orbit that could last several years,” Ó Gríofa said.

“It could also have benefits for many diseases here on earth, like Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy or diseases related to aging.”

Now, a few days into the mission, Ó Gríofa has been updating those interested in the mission via a blog posted on the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC).

Certainly, it sounds like things are going ‘swimmingly’ for him and his fellow crew, with an added dose of Irish humour.

“You have a mission control room full of very highly-trained scientists from multiple space agencies who do this for real with a space station 100 miles above the earth… and then you go and stick an Irish doctor directly into the data choke point for this entire operation and hope he can juggle all of the balls for four hours! This also became my new definition of drinking from a firehose!”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic