Feb 15, 2018 | By Benedict

A new NASA microbiology project aims to develop 3D printable tools that can handle liquids such as blood samples without spilling in microgravity. The 3D printed instruments will be tested on the International Space Station (ISS), and could be used to keep astronauts healthy.

ESA's Matthias Maurer inserting samples into a MinION DNA sequencer

(Image: NASA)

One of the biggest considerations for those looking to send astronauts to Mars—you know, besides fuel and small matters like that—is keeping astronauts fit and well for an extended period of time in space.

For an organization like NASA, which is determined to someday send humans to Mars, it is crucial to learn how bacteria in space might affect crew health, and how human genes affect aging and disease.

One way to learn more about this is to conduct small medical tests on astronauts aboard the ISS. NASA already uses the ISS to study the various “omics” that relate to human health, but things like blood samples can’t be processed up in space. Instead, they have to be sent back to Earth for analysis, making any kind of research a slow and laborious process.

New 3D printed instruments could change all that. NASA is currently figuring out how 3D printing could be used to develop instruments for analyzing biological samples in space. These instruments would allow fluids—blood and saliva, for example—to be handled properly in microgravity.

AI Biosciences DNA extractor

(Image: AI Biosciences)

The new project, called Omics in Space, will build upon previous research to develop an automated DNA/RNA extractor that will prepare samples for aMinION device. This extractor will contain a 3D printed plastic cartridge for extracting nucleic acids.

This technology is already used on Earth, but getting it up and running on the ISS would represent a big step in the right direction for NASA.

“We're taking what's on Earth to analyze DNA and consolidating all the steps into an automated system,” explains Camilla Urbaniak, a post-doctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and co-investigator on Omics in Space. “What's new is we're developing a one-stop-shop that can extract and process all of these samples.”

The plastic cartridge will be made 3D printable

(Image: AI Biosciences)

The project will hopefully reveal why astronaut immune systems weaken while aboard the ISS, and collect information about what kind of microbes end up being present in the astronaut’s environment.

This information could be crucial for ensuring the success of a long-haul mission—to Mars or elsewhere.

The current iteration of the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), a 3D printer operating in space aboard the ISS, has been in service for almost two years.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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