What are the limits for DNA’s survival in the universe? Dr. Cora Thiel and Professor Oliver Ullrich, from the University of Zurich, are on a mission to find out. By attaching plasmid DNA to the exterior of a sounding rocket and blasting it into space, they are discovering just how tough DNA can be. As Dr. Cora Thiel explains, "We were shocked to recover so much intact and functional DNA following its trip into orbit and back."
Preparing to launch
The mission began at the remote Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, north of the Arctic Circle, a major hotspot for space research. As winter sets in from October to May, visitor numbers decline and the lakes freeze over, making this an ideal location for rocket flight experiments to take off and land safely on solid ground.
After months of intense preparation, artificial plasmid DNA (pEGFP-C3) carrying a fluorescent marker and an antibiotic resistance cassette was purified using our trusted QIAGEN Plasmid Maxi Kit. With very steady hands, Dr. Cora Thiel meticulously applied the DNA to various areas of the rocket’s exterior. The rocket was then transported to the launch tower while the team assembled in the block house hoping for the perfect launch. Tensions grew as the countdown began and finally, as the blazing rocket broke through the clouds to an altitude of 268 km, the team breathed a brief sigh of relief.
Survival in space
During the 13 minutes of total flight time, the internal temperature rocketed to 130°C and the outer gas temperature was estimated to reach more than 1000°C. The tiny plasmid space travelers were also exposed to microgravity, vacuum and radiation, simulating the harsh conditions a meteorite might experience when entering the atmosphere. As soon as the rocket came hurtling back to earth, the team was under pressure to locate it using GPS and rapidly recover and purify the remaining DNA.
To their surprise, they discovered that 53% of the DNA could be recovered from the grooves of screw heads and 35% of the DNA had full biological function. Incredibly, the DNA was even intact enough to pass on its genetic information, creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fluorescent eukaryotic cells. “For the first time the team was able to provide experimental evidence that the DNA's genetic information is essentially capable of surviving the extreme conditions of space and re-entry into Earth's dense atmosphere,” concluded Professor Oliver Ullrich.
Exploring the unknown
Through these remarkable experiments, Professor Oliver Ullrich and his dedicated team have shown us that DNA, and possibly other biomarkers, are hardier than predicted. As they continue to push DNA to its limits they are uncovering new possibilities for life in the universe and, even more importantly, developing essential strategies to prevent contamination during voyages to other worlds. As Professor Oliver Ullrich explains, "The results show that it is by no means unlikely that, despite all the safety precautions, space ships could also carry terrestrial DNA to their landing site. We need to have this under control in the search for extraterrestrial life.”
Explore the resources below to uncover more about this extraordinary study, find a plasmid purification kit to suit your needs or submit your own exciting research story.
Thiel, S. C., Tauber, S., Schütte, A., Schmitz, B., Nuesse, H ., Moeller, R., Ullrich , O. (2014) Functional activity of plasmid DNA after entry into the atmosphere of Earth investigated by a new biomarker stability assay for ballistic spaceflight experiments. PLOS doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0112979.
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