On GeneLab we conduct research beyond gravity, search for answers in space, and make discoveries that push back the frontiers of understanding on Earth.

The science of GeneLab

Sections —
Why experiments in space matter
The science of GeneLab
Space Life and Physical Sciences
Together we're stronger
The International Space Station (ISS)

Why experiments in space matter

Life is different in microgravity. Wounds heal slower. Infections develop faster. Bones grow thinner. Transcriptional patterns and molecular signaling networks change as biology responds to spaceflight.

Astronauts working in orbit
Image — Experiments are different up here.

Experiments in microgravity will be performed to understand the genetic changes and the molecular underpinnings that take place nowhere on earth, and can’t be replicated anywhere else. What makes the GeneLab platform unprecedented is the comprehensive effort to create an open science database of fully coordinated genomics, proteomics and metabolomics data comparing life in space to life on Earth. What we discover on GeneLab will deepen our understanding of biology, help find cures for disease, develop new medicines, create better diagnostic tools, and advance the field of genomics.

A lab in space protects the health of astronauts

What we learn in GeneLab can help astronauts live in space longer, and stay healthy on the long trip to Mars and back. By studying how the fundamental principles of life itself are changed in spaceflight we can develop treatments to fight the loss of muscle mass, decreased bone density, and weakened cardiovascular function as astronauts undergo the rigors of long duration spaceflight.

A lab in space improves life on Earth

Down to Earth medical problems addressed in a lab above it all. Wound care. Bed sores. Bone loss. We hope one day the data from GeneLab will contribute to solutions that benefit us all. Studying genetic processes in microgravity may lead to breakthrough genomics research across all areas of biology, and lead to the development of new drugs to treat degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

In space the bacteria that transmit disease become more powerful. Understanding the triggers that make bacteria more virulent can lead to the development of effective antibiotics and vaccine candidates to treat diseases of the immune system.

The microgravity of spaceflight provides plant biologists with a tool to further characterize the mechanisms that govern gravitropic and phototropic responses in plants. Insight into the differences in gene expression of plants grown in microgravity can help us understand the fundamental mechanism of cell biology.

In space the bacteria that transmit disease become more powerful. Understanding the triggers that make bacteria more virulent can lead to the development of effective antibiotics and vaccine candidates to treat diseases of the immune system.

Stem cell research, regenerative medicine and the growth of space-based cell cultures – engineering three dimensional, well-organized tissue growth in space can help us accelerate the development of potential life-saving therapies.

We anticipate the GeneLab data collection effort will benefit drug development, gene-based therapies, and commercial big data interests, while demonstrating analytics and data processing possibilities.

Bacteria floating in media
The GeneLab platform

To see farther we look closer.

The science of GeneLab examines the fundamental building blocks of life itself. DNA. RNA. The structure of proteins. Molecular signaling processes. On GeneLab we conduct research beyond gravity and search for answers in space that one day will lead to discoveries that push back the frontiers of understanding on Earth.

GeneLab is expanding scientists’ access to the research conducted in microgravity with experiments that explore the molecular response of terrestrial biology to spaceflight environment. The vast amounts of raw data generated by experiments aboard the International Space Station are being made available to a worldwide community of scientists and computational researchers in an open access database.

GeneLab at a glance

GeneLab’s big data analytic tools will enable scientists and researchers to perform research on an unprecedented scale. GeneLab provides a single platform where scientists can capture, curate, store, search, share, transfer, analyze and visualize spaceflight datasets. By studying genomics and life sciences in space, GeneLab seeks to answer the most basic questions about life on Earth, and help keep astronauts safe as they undergo long-duration spaceflight.

How it works

GeneLab gathers spaceflight genomic data, RNA and protein expression, and metabolic profiles, interfaces with existing databases for expanded research, will offer tools to conduct data analysis, and is in the process of creating a place online where scientists, researchers, teachers and students can connect with their peers, share their results, and communicate with NASA.

Thanks to open access to the data sets from GeneLab, scientists will be able to integrate space biology research on an unprecedented scale. The experiments managed by GeneLab are expected to generate vast amounts of molecular data, which will help define the transcriptome, proteome, metabolome and fundamental genomic responses of a variety of organisms to spaceflight. Open access to this data combined with state-of-the-art analytical tools supported by GeneLab will help scientists explore how terrestrial biology adjusts to the novel environment of space.

As part of the GeneLab platform, NASA sends model systems to live aboard the space station. These include cell lines, bacteria and fungi, plants, fruit flies, worms, fish and mice—systems routinely used in genetics research on Earth. All possible DNA, RNA, protein and metabolite data is extracted from microbes, tissues and organisms at several points during the space missions.

The samples are preserved on orbit, and then stored aboard the space station and returned to Earth for later analysis. GeneLab has created an open access data repository for scientists to perform more research, using a big data, systems biology approach to access the enormous amounts of raw data GeneLab generates. The raw data comes from mapping the complete genes, transciptomes, metabolomes and proteomes of the tissues flown in space. The data is uploaded into the GeneLab bioinformatics database, a universally available life sciences database that contains the integrated gene and biomolecular maps for the tissues and organisms that have flown aboard the station.

As part of the GeneLab platform, NASA send model systems to live aboard the space station. These include cell lines, bacteria and fungi, plants, fruit flies, worms, fish and mice—systems routinely used in genetics research on Earth.

Once researchers download GeneLab data they will be able to research bioinformatics modeling, sample analysis and processing, data mining to identify targets for drug development and personalized medicine, and systems biology of model organisms and humans.

GeneLab will create open-source, open access modeling tools for computational scientists and researchers to write scripts to analyze the data and dig deeper to find patterns. In a spirit of open inquiry, GeneLab data is designed to be shared with a global community of scientists for research, analysis, and data mining as they pursue the answers to their questions.


A four-phased approach

Beginning in 2014, a four-phased approach to design the GeneLab data systems, develop a pipeline of viable experiments, and launch candidate experiments to the International Space Station will take GeneLab to full operational capacity.

Image — Experiments onboard the International Space Station offer a new perspective to genetic researchers.
Phases —
01 Searchable Data

Define requirements, design the system, reach out to partners, prepare for flight.

02 Data Acquisition

In late 2015 GeneLab will link to existing life science databases, expand life science studies through collaboration and dedicated research flights, and develop a pipeline of onboard experiments. Experiments will be flown to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX payload delivery system, and also conducted in ground-based labs. In addition, alternate free-flyer missions will be considered for GeneLab collaborative and dedicated experiments.

03 System Integration

By mid 2018, GeneLab plans to have an integrated platform capable of looking across model organisms at genes and pathways. Perform experiments, engage scientific community through collaborative science, provide data and results for analysis, link to existing analysis and modeling tools.

04 Data Sharing

Beginning in 2019, GeneLab hopes to implement an open-source modeling tool with the community and create a forum for open collaboration where scientists can interact, share data, and build discoveries together.

International Space Station on dark background

Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division (SLPSRA)

SLPSRA oversees basic and mission-specific scientific research in support of human spaceflight and crew health and safety, as well as basic and applied scientific research in life and physical science. SLPSRA serves as agency liaison with the International Space Station National Laboratory management organization, ensuring that the International Space Station is used as an orbiting laboratory to provide a facility for conducting long-duration experiments in microgravity. This allows continuous and interactive research similar to Earth-based laboratories, enabling scientists to pursue innovations and discoveries not currently achievable by other means.

Soyuz modules as seen from the International Space Station
Image — Genetic research above it all.
Ground vs. space: it’s different up there

GeneLab provides a unique opportunity for scientists to examine the data produced by experiments in a one-of-a-kind environment. The data GeneLab gathers can help determine how the building blocks of life respond free of the evolutionary constraints of gravity.

Onboard the International Space Station, space is limited. And with only six astronauts aboard, the time to conduct experiments is constrained as well. So it is vital that GeneLab experiments are broad based, with the potential to deliver the most useful data to the most scientists working on solving the world’s most relevant problems. With more scientists working together to solve broad-based problems we hope to accelerate the pace of scientific breakthroughs, so more discoveries can be made faster than ever before.

By opening up GeneLab experimental data to a global community of both “wet lab” scientists and computational data researchers, GeneLab provides more bang for the buck. GeneLab is an opportunity for scientists around the world to do experiments using the shared tools in the field of “omics” research including genetic sequencing, proteomics, metabolomics, and small signaling molecules. Thanks to GeneLab, biomedical researchers will have a low-cost way to perform more research, using a systems biology approach for research that uses omics datasets to access more information.

High content. High throughput. High impact. High Participation.

GeneLab will expand the limited number of flight opportunities into hundreds of investigations to advance knowledge and discovery. Using an open science approach, GeneLab will greatly increase the number of scientists who can participate in space biological research. This science platform will encompass spaceflight experiments, sample collection, and advanced analytics, including a bioinformatics infrastructure on Earth to organize the data and provide open access to the GeneLab research data.

Systems biology/integrated analysis: more data, better models

Combining the study of genes, proteins and fundamental metabolic function, systems biology integrates the analysis of genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics to analyze spaceflight samples in a high throughput analytic environment that produces enormous data sets. The GeneLab open-access data infrastructure will provide scientists with access to dramatically more space-related data and robust analytical and modeling tools. State-of-the-art high throughput genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and bioinformatics tools can potentially yield hundreds of follow-up investigations and generate next-generation hypothesis-driven research, as well as next-generation applied translation research.

A new platform for research yields new results

The GeneLab bioinformatics platform will act as a repository of space-derived and ground-based biological observations promoting the development of new hypothesis not previously conceived and novel experiments yet to be envisioned. A scientific evaluation of genomic changes during spaceflight, for example, will advance our understanding of gene-environment interactions that influence chronic disease risk.

The discoveries on GeneLab may one day lead to new medicines, find cures for diseases on Earth, and help astronauts withstand the rigors of long duration spaceflight.

Open Access. Open science. Open Inquiry.

GeneLab will capture vast amounts of data from spaceflight samples, then enable open access to that data by a broad community of scientists and researchers. By democratizing access to information, GeneLab will increase the return on investment for research conducted in microgravity and heighten the scientific impact of each experiment. The resulting ability for comparative analyses will help scientists around the world take a major leap forward in understanding the effect of microgravity, radiation, and other aspects of the space environment on model organisms. This model of open-access science promises to rapidly increase information sharing. As the rate of experimental iteration leads to a faster pace of scientific discovery, GeneLab will be instrumental in producing new knowledge. The discoveries on GeneLab may one day lead to new medicines, find cures for diseases on Earth, and help astronauts withstand the rigors of long duration spaceflight.

New research leads to new questions

Follow-on research. Research always reveals new questions as well as answers. Using the NASA Research Announcement Process, SLPSRA will support follow-on research for deeper dives examining fundamental questions. SLPSRA will consider data analyzed from GeneLab as part of the background justification for the importance of the proposed research.

GeneLab Payloads The first experiments to be performed onboard GeneLab may include —
  • Cell lines
  • T-Cells
  • Rodent samples
  • Unicellular samples
  • Bacillus subtilis / Staphyococcus epidermidis
  • Arabidopsis thaliana
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae
  • Brassica rapa
Specific research will make use of model organisms including —
  • Drosophila (fruit flies)
  • Microbial
  • Bacteria
  • Plant
  • C. elegans (nematode roundworm)
  • Yeast
  • Rodent

GeneLab Experiments

GeneLab seeks answers to the fundamental questions of life itself

Space life science Biological Research in Canisters-19 (BRIC-19)
What we are doing

The BRIC-19 investigation will focus on the growth and development of Arabidopsis seedlings in microgravity. Seedlings will be preserved with a chemical fixative and returned to the ground for postflight evaluation.

The experiment will analyze these mechanically-related responses in wild-type Arabidopsis as well as in two mutants of this plant where a gene already known to be related to mechanical signaling (named 'touch 2', TCH2) is continuously activated or inactivated. These plants will be germinated and grown as seedlings onboard the International Space Station, chemically fixed and then frozen. The frozen samples will be returned for later analysis of growth and patterns of gene expression.

Why it matters

In plants, development is also closely linked to mechanical forces either from the environment, such as wind, or that are generated internally from forces related to growth. In addition, the weight of the plant itself acts to generate forces that control growth and development. The goal of BRIC-19 is to understand how the responses of plants are altered by growth in the microgravity environment of the space station, where such signals are reduced.

Physical sciences Muscle Atrophy of Muscle Sparing in Transgenic Mice
What we are doing

In order to learn more about muscle wasting and loss of bone density in microgravity, researchers aim to look at the muscle atrophy and muscle sparing in transgenic mice. Researchers use both similarities and differences between rodents and humans to gain insight into complex human biological systems, and past rodent spaceflight experiments have contributed significantly to our understanding of the effects of microgravity on biological processes that are directly relevant to humans in space. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) obtains tissue samples from mice flown to the International Space Station to support valuable commercial muscle wasting research.

Why it matters

The research program on the International Space Station is an essential tool for understanding the impacts of spaceflight on physiological systems and for development of potential therapies that will mitigate detrimental responses and advance disease treatments on Earth. Researchers hope to gain a better understanding of several biological mechanisms including osteoporosis, muscle- metabolic disease, disuse from injury, muscular dystrophy immune- treatment of auto-immune diseases, and approaches to fighting infection that can potentially help develop new drug targets.

Together We're Stronger

Participating institutions

Together we’re stronger. Smarter, too. GeneLab anticipates partnering with national research institutes of science and medicine, academic research institutions, and private corporations. As a global scientific community comes together to conduct joint research in the fields of biology, genomics, systems biology, and data analysis, we believe this “open science” approach has the potential to democratize science and produce a source of new knowledge greater than any single institution could deliver.