Humans have been fascinated by what exists beyond our skies for centuries, as documented across cultures and timelines in history. While the ability to explore has improved vastly, NASA's interest in going deeper into space, especially with human-crewed flight, is dependent upon an understanding of space biology in order to mitigate health risks to space explorers. Space biology refers to the study of the effects of spaceflight conditions, ranging from factors such as microgravity, cosmic radiation, nutrition, confinement, light cycles, and more on organisms. In order to gain such biological insights, NASA uses model organisms and biological techniques such as Omics analyses.
A model organism is a non-human species that is used to study biological processes, usually in laboratory experimentation. Model organisms tend to have a short generation time yet are able to be used as comparisons to humans. Common examples of model organisms used in spaceflight studies include fruit flies, certain types of fish, worms, plants (Arabidposis thaliana) and rodents such as mice. For studies of cellular behavior, yeast is also a common model organism.
In general, omics analyses involve a collective set of information all of which can be used to paint a more complete picture of how spaceflight affects biology at the molecular level. A few examples of omics analyses include:
- Genomics - an examination of the genome or DNA of an organism.
- Transcriptomics - an examination of the transcriptome or RNA genetic code. One method of analyzing the transcriptome is called RNA sequencing (RNAseq), where gene expression can be processed, quantified, and analyzed. This is the primary focus for the GeneLab educational resources.
- Proteomics - a large-scale study of the proteins in an organism.
GeneLab has created educational resources that are publicly available to help drive research and invite educators along with their students at various skill levels to perform real RNAseq analysis. Open science enables accessibility to an audience that might otherwise not have their own methods of data acquisition through wet labs or experimentation yet have talents or interests in the field. For young scientists, these also provide early career exploration opportunities to allow for effective professional preparation. The educational programs provided by GeneLab include the GeneLab for High Schools Internship (GL4HS) and the GeneLab for Colleges and Universities (GL4U). Here, we describe both programs and provide educational resources that can be used by both educators and students.