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Sarah Wallace

Nanopore sequencing in space: one small step for a MinION, one giant leap for spaceflight research

About Sarah Wallace

Dr. Sarah Wallace serves as technical lead in the Microbiology Laboratory at the NASA Johnson Space Center, which is responsible for mitigating infectious disease risk during human spaceflight. Her responsibilities include the assessment of microbial risk based on vehicle and mission architectures as well as crewmember, food, and environmental monitoring. These assessments are used to develop requirements for NASA and commercial spaceflight vehicles, including the International Space Station. In addition to her operational support of human spaceflight, Dr. Wallace leads new technology initiatives for her discipline with the goal of reducing Earth dependence for complex sample analysis. She has served as PI for numerous spaceflight investigations, including those to increase off-planet molecular biology capabilities and also to understand how the spaceflight environment impacts cellular behavior. 


As NASA sets sights beyond low-Earth orbit, real-time monitoring and diagnostics of crew health and the environment are required. The majority of previous research on the International Space Station (ISS) has relied on ground-based analyses following sample return to Earth. As a result, biological insights could be lost due to sample fixation and time to receipt in the laboratory. Moreover, sample return will become impractical as missions move beyond the ISS. Oxford Nanopore Technologies’ MinION has made in situ sequencing a reality in any field setting. Since our 2016 demonstration of the MinION’s high-performance off-Earth, four astronauts across the last ten ISS expeditions have successfully completed 18 sequencing experiments. Here, we will describe our end-to-end, sample-to-sequencer process that can be conducted entirely aboard the ISS, and which resulted in the first identification of microbes collected and cultured entirely off-Earth. Expanding beyond the need to first culture the microbes, our culture-independent, swab-to-sequencer investigation is currently underway to characterize further the microbiome of the ISS. One of our long-term goals is to enable crew health monitoring using functional genomics. As a start, we sequenced native poly-A RNA (and cDNA) from a human cell line (GM12878) aboard the ISS and will present findings from these experiments. Nanopore sequencing technology and our sample preparation procedures have expanded the reach of molecular biology to the final frontier. These proven capabilities hold the potential to revolutionize space-based research and in-flight medical operations.

Sarah Wallace

Sarah Wallace

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