DURHAM – What did you do for your middle school science project?

Fifteen Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students at Immaculata Catholic Middle School in Durham recently launched theirs into space. They partnered with researchers at Precision BioSciences to develop a genome editing experiment for the U.S. Naval Laboratory on the International Space Station (ISS). The idea is to explore whether the technology can help humans, plants and animals adapt to life outside Earth’s atmosphere.

Immaculata students at poster session on their genome editing project
for the International Space Station.

According to Precision—a Durham-based genome-editing company that spun out of Duke University in 2006—it is the first experiment of its type conducted in space. The project was launched from Cape Canaveral in early December aboard a SpaceXDragon cargo spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket. It was heady stuff for the group of students who attended the launch and participated in on-site presentations and poster sessions.

Immaculata Middle School STEM Director Karen Kingrea said the opportunity arose through Space Center University at Space Center Houston and the DreamUp program. Space Center U offers five-day programs for students that promote teamwork, problem solving, communication and the design of engineering solutions to space-related situations.

The curriculum isn’t new to Kingrea, who was selected by Space Center Houston in 2017 as one of 35 Space Exploration Educators. She subsequently worked with the center to extend the university programs beyond high school to middle schools. Her team of STEM students piloted a new course last year that included instruction on creating an experiment for space. Immaculata chose to investigate microgravity.

Immaculata students at poster session on their genome editing project
for the International Space Station.

DreamUp, an educational company that places select student research projects on SpaceX ISS payloads, helped deliver the goods. Eight experiments, including the one from Immaculata, were part of the launch on December 6. It reached astronauts at the International Space Station about a day later.

Ironically, Immaculata wasn’t the only Durham area program that made the trip. Another group of students from several Durham high schools—called Team Orion—designed an experiment to study how a living fungus might help shield astronauts from increased radiation levels in space. If the fungus shows potential as a radiation barrier, it could be useful on earth as well—as a radiation shield for workers at nuclear power plants, for instance, or for those who clean up radioactively contaminated sites.

Precision BioSciences employees JoAnn Hux and Ginger Tomberlin teamed up with the Immaculata STEM students to design their gene-editing project around Precision’s proprietary ARCUS genome-editing technology. ARCUS uses a unique approach to modify the DNA recognition properties of homing endonucleases, or enzymes, that are essential to DNA repair. The technology focuses on eliminating cancers, curing genetic diseases, and—through Precision’s Elo Life Systems subsidiary—creating safer, more productive food sources.

The project used an ARCUS synthetic enzyme nuclease to cut a DNA plasmid. It’s a fairly simple step in the genome editing process that is easy to measure and works well in an earthly environment. But it has never been tested in microgravity.

Precision’s editing technology is particularly well suited for this type of experiment. It is based on a single, compact protein. And the ARCUS nuclease is stable across a range of temperatures, so it can be dried down and rehydrated without affecting its function.

Precision CEO Matt Kane, who watched the launch, said his company was delighted to be involved in the program. “Our hope is that this will be the first of many steps to make ARCUS genome editing a critical component of future scientific endeavors, including space exploration,” he said. “I’m so pleased Precision could be part of this experiment and I admire the Precisioneers (Precision employees) who have given their time to support these amazing young scientists.”

Hux was equally honored to contribute. “These young scientists have designed a fantastic gene editing experiment for the Space Station and I could not be prouder of them,” she added.

And the Immaculata team members were enthusiastic participants. “It’s hard to get middle school students excited about anything,” Kingrea said. “So it was fun to see their reactions as the experiment launched into space.”

What goes up must eventually come down, and the science projects that traveled to the International Space Station in December 2018 returned to earth Sunday, January 13, 2019. Soon the Immaculata STEM students and former students—some have moved on to high school since the project began—will see whether their genome-editing experiment was a success.