Mars prep mission makes history with underwater DNA sequencing

A DNA sequencer has been used under the sea for the first time ever as part of a 16-day NASA astronaut mission at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to prepare for travel to Mars and other deep space ventures.

According to astronaut Reid Wiseman, who shared a picture of the DNA sequencer in action, the team are carrying out tests for the International Space Station (ISS) as well as future Mars operations.

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 21 undersea mission is designed to prepare the team for the extreme conditions associated with Mars, and to test tools and techniques that could be used on board missions to the red planet.

“Much like space, the undersea world is a hostile, alien place for humans to live,” NASA says. “NEEMO crew members, known as aquanauts, experience some of the same challenges there that they would on a distant asteroid, planet or moon.”

The crew are stationed in Aquarius, the world’s only undersea research station, located 5.6km (3.5 miles) off the coast of Florida’s Key Largo and next to deep coral reefs.

The handheld DNA sequencer, known as Minion, is also being tested on the ISS. It can be used to test organisms, which could also include alien life forms. Crew members on Aquarius and the ISS will conduct a number of tests to ascertain whether the device will work the same way as it does on land.

“This one piece of equipment might do a lot for us, in terms of exploration, research and crew health-related issues," NASA microbiologist Sarah Wallace told Live Science.

The Minion can be used to test for microbes, to monitor the crew’s health, and to test for DNA and DNA-like molecules – perfect for looking for life on Mars.

The NEEMO21 team appear to be having a great time under the sea.