There and back again

December 14, 2018

Aaron Engelhart launches new project to work with high school students on RNA folding in space through unique return mission.


In space, astronauts experience life without some of the constraints of gravity. They float effortlessly from one spot to another around their spaceships. But much remains unknown about the full biological implications of such space travel. Aaron Engelhart and a team of high school students aims to dig into that further as a part of a “Genes in Space” project this summer.

“We know that microgravity, such as that that astronauts experience, has an impact on a range of biological processes,” says Engelhart. “Since RNA folding into specific three-dimensional structures is so fundamental to biology, a key question is how spaceflight will impact human health.”

Engelhart recently received a grant to work with high school students to send an experiment up to the International Space Station to observe how well RNA folds when in zero gravity. This project builds off a recent experiment Engelhart and colleagues took part in to launch a similar project into suborbital spaceflight earlier this summer.

In the initial experiment, he studied RNA that became fluorescent when folding appropriately, making it possible to evaluate the impact zero gravity had on this process. This next experiment will take the research a step further. The team will not only be able to look at RNA folding in space over a longer period of time, but also study the results when the physical payload that holds the experiment returns to earth.

“This is a unique opportunity since sample return missions are inherently more expensive and thus less common,” says Engelhart.

In addition to better understanding the impact of space flight on the human body, Engelhart sees broader potential applications for this project.

“RNA folding is of particular importance to human health,” he says. “There's been increasing interest in the last few years, both from academia and several high-profile startups, in using messenger RNA as a drug target. The idea here is to develop drugs that target the three-dimensional structures of folded mRNA, much like many drugs target folded proteins. In the last few years, scientists have developed methods for performing DNA and RNA sequencing in space using miniaturized instrumentation.There's still a lot to be done here, and that's where our work comes in.”

-Lance Janssen