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The regular resupply missions to the International Space Station include the basics like food, but all sorts of new science toys as well. In the Dragon capsule that docked with the station several days ago, there was one particularly interesting device — a DNA sequencer. It’s called the MinION, and it’s tiny at just 120 grams. That’s probably lighter than your smartphone, but it could do some big science up there.

This will be the first time DNA has been sequenced in orbit, so part of the MinION mission will just be to prove that it works. NASA is considering a few other DNA sequencers for future space missions, but they will mostly be testing for targeted organisms. MinION is designed to analyze a full range of samples.

The MinION operates a bit differently than DNA sequencers on Earth, but that’s by design. NASA wants to be prepared for any kind of sample, even an alien one. When a sample is loaded into the MinION, it will encounter a barrier filled with small pores (nanopores) that allow charged particles (i.e. ions, that’s where the MinION gets its name) to pass through. This creates an electrical current that the device reads. When a larger molecule like DNA enters the channel, it reduces the current. That pattern can then be used to determine the sequence of the molecule.

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