DNA Won’t Be Killed Dead By A Rocket Ride To Space, Study Suggests

So how ’bout those planetary protection agreements? Turns out that plasmid DNA — the kind that exists in bacterial cells  — may be able to survive a rocket trip to space, based on research with an engineered version. And if life’s building blocks can get there, perhaps they can even go beyond. The International Space Station? Mars?

This information comes from a single peer-reviewed study based on a sounding rocket that went into suborbital space in March 2011. Called TEXUS-49, its payload included artificial plasmid DNA that had both a fluorescent marker and an antibiotic resistance gene.

Even in the 13-minute flight, temperatures on the rocket exterior soared to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit.) And remarkably, the DNA survived.

While we talk about Earth having carbon-based life forms, the coding parts of DNA are nucleotides - with a carbon content of zero. Credit: NASA (adapted image).
While we talk about Earth having carbon-based life forms, the coding parts of DNA are nucleotides – with a carbon content of zero. Credit: NASA (adapted image).

Not all of the DNA was working properly, though. Up to 35% of it had its “full biological function”, researchers stated, specifically in terms of helping bacteria with antibiotic resistance and encouraging the fluorescent marker to express itself in eukaryotic cells, the cell type found in animals and plants.

The next step, naturally, would be to test this theory with more flights, the authors suggest. But interestingly enough, DNA survival wasn’t even the intended goal of the original study, even though there are stories of simple life surviving for a time in space, such as spores on the exterior of the International Space Station shown in the image below.

Images of Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 spores (seen in an electron micrograph) on aluminum before and after being exposed to space on an International Space Station experiment. Credit: P. Vaishampayan, et al./Astrobiology
Images of Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 spores (seen in an electron micrograph) on aluminum before and after being exposed to space on an International Space Station experiment. Credit: P. Vaishampayan, et al./Astrobiology

“We were totally surprised. Originally, we designed this experiment as a technology test for biomarker stability during spaceflight and re-entry,” the authors wrote in a statement for PLOS.

“We never expected to recover so many intact and functional active DNA. But it is not only an issue from space to Earth, it is also an issue from Earth to space and to other planets: Our findings made us a little bit worried about the probability of contaminating spacecrafts, landers and landing sites with DNA from Earth.”

You can read more about the study in the journal PLOS One. The research was led by the University of Zurich’s Cora Thiel.

Source: PLOS

NASA To Launch The Finest Mirrors Ever Made

This Wednesday NASA will launch its High Resolution Coronal Imager (HI-C) mission from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, sending a sounding rocket above the atmosphere with some of the best mirrors ever made to capture incredibly-detailed ultraviolet images of our Sun.

HI-C will use a state-of-the-art imaging system to focus on a region near the center of the Sun about 135,000 miles (271,000 km) across. During its brief flight — only ten minutes long — HI-C will return some of the most detailed images of the Sun’s corona ever acquired, with a resolution five times that of previous telescopes… including NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

While SDO collects images in ten wavelengths, however, HI-C will focus on just one: 193 Angstroms, a wavelength of ultraviolet radiation that best reveals the structures of the Sun’s corona present in temperatures of 1.5 million kelvin. And although HI-C’s mirrors aren’t any larger than SDO’s — about 9.5 inches in diameter — they are “some of the finest ever made.” In addition, an interior “maze” between mirrors effectively increases HI-C’s focal length.

Researchers expect HI-C’s super-smooth mirrors to resolve coronal structures as small as 100 miles (160 km) across (0.1 arcsec/pixel).

“Other instruments in space can’t resolve things that small, but they do suggest – after detailed computer analysis of the amount of light in any given pixel – that structures in the sun’s atmosphere are about 100 miles across,” said Jonathan Cirtain, project scientist for HI-C at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “And we also have theories about the shapes of structures in the atmosphere, or corona, that expect that size. HI-C will be the first chance we have to see them.”

One of the main goals of HI-C will be to place significant new constraints on theories of coronal heating and structuring, by observing the small-scale processes that exist everywhere in hot magnetized coronal plasma and establishing whether or not there are additional structures below what can currently be seen.

“This instrument could push the limits on theories of coronal heating, answering questions such as why the temperature of the sun’s corona is millions of degrees higher than that of the surface,” said Marshall’s Dr. Jonathan Cirtain, heliophysicist and principle investigator on the mission.

Read more on the NASA news release here.

Top image: A Black Brant sounding rocket containing NASA’s HI-C mission will launch on July 11, 2012 to observe the sun’s corona. (NASA) Bottom image: TRACE image of the Sun at a resolution of 0.5 arcsec/pixel. HI-C will have a resolution 5 times finer.