CRISPR gene-editing tested in space for first time in DNA damage study

The famous CRISPR gene-editing tool has been successfully used in space for the first time. Researchers onboard the International Space Station have edited yeast cells to study how they repair DNA damage, which could be a big step towards finding effective ways to protect astronauts against the radiation danger of space.

CRISPR is one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the past decade, allowing scientists to easily make cut-and-paste edits to the genomes of living cells. The anticipation is that this could potentially help us fight a whole range of diseases like many cancers, HIV, muscular dystrophy and diabetes, and many inherited genetic diseases. But there’s a broad group of health problems that we haven’t yet begun to test CRISPR on – those that arise from space travel.

Having had astronauts visiting, working and living in space for decades now, it’s becoming clear that future spacefarers will be exposed to a whole mess of dangerous complications.

Thanks to low gravity and high radiation exposure, astronauts can experience loss of muscle mass, and increased risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, leaky gut, Alzheimer’s and cancer.

So for the new study, researchers on a project called Genes In Space set out to investigate whether CRISPR behaved any differently in the microgravity environment of space. The team introduced the CRISPR mechanism to colonies of yeast on the ISS and compared them to control groups here on Earth.

And sure enough, the gene-editing worked, making it the first such demonstration of the technology in space. The team says that this could be the first steps towards developing a way to repair the DNA of astronauts while in space, to keep them healthier as we spend increasing amounts of time away from Earth.

“It’s not just that the team successfully deployed novel technologies like CRISPR genome editing, PCR, and nanopore sequencing in an extreme environment, but also that we were able to integrate them into a functionally complete biotechnology workflow applicable to the study of DNA repair and other fundamental cellular processes in microgravity,” says Sebastian Kraves, senior author of the study. ”These developments fill this team with hope in humanity’s renewed quest to explore and inhabit the vast expanse of space.”