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A new era of space omics

Omics technologies have made possible cost-efficient, high-throughput analysis of biologic molecules. Recent advances can be attributed to innovative breakthroughs in genome sequencing, bioinformatics and analytics tools (e.g., mass spectrometry) as well as high-throughput technologies. These technologies have provided crucial insights into biological processes and helped to unravel the complexity of human diseases.

We are entering a new era of human space exploration, with both NASA and other international and private organisations planning to return to the Moon and send the first humans to Mars. With these big plans, there has been a demand for the development of new and rigorous international standards for space research. Astronauts from all over the world undertake experiments in microgravity aboard the International Space Station, ISS. However, due to a lack of standardised methods, external scientists find it difficult to utilise the data generated within their own research. To address this, the International Standards for Space Omics Processing (ISSOP) was established. ISSOP is an international consortium of scientists who aim to enhance standard guidelines between space biologists at a global level. In this blog, we will explore the challenges related to spaceflight omics and the benefits that this consortium will bring in preparing for the upcoming era of space life science.

Effects of spaceflight

Radiation, microgravity, altered atmospheric gas composition, isolation and diet changes are just some of the known stressors affecting humans in the space environment. With extended mission durations and distances outside of Earth’s orbit these factors are expected to increase. There are several adverse human health effects associated with spaceflight including bone demineralisation, skeletal muscle atrophy, cardiovascular deconditioning, vestibular control, immune system suppression and neuro-ocular ailments. It is critical to understand how spaceflight factors affect human health in order to develop safe and effective countermeasures.

The NASA Twin Study catalysed the need for more comprehensive, consortium-based approaches to study the long-term effects of spaceflight on humans. Here, nine research groups studied a single data type in detail whilst another group performed multi-omics synthesis to determine the whole-body changes. The study identified alterations in numerous data types, including telomere length, gene regulation, gut microbiome composition, body weight, carotid artery dimensions and serum metabolite profiles.

On the other hand, the vast majority of space biology experiments and datasets are generated using model organisms. In all cases, space biologists are increasingly harnessing omics approaches in order to maximise the knowledge gained from rare spaceflight experiments.

International Standards for Space Omics Processing

While omics technologies can generate vast quantities of data, optimal extraction of actionable scientific insights from these complex datasets can only occur with improved standardisation and communication at an international level. Conducting biological research in spaceflight presents unique technical and biological challenges. In order to ensure its success, these challenges will need to be specifically addressed by the international space biology community. In response, ISSOP consortium was formed. Members include scientists who conduct space omics experiments funded by multiple space agencies in Japan (JAXA), Europe (including delegates from the European Space Agency [ESA] Space Omics Topical Team) and the United States (NASA). They bring expertise related to the processing of space omics samples, the implementation of multi-omics and systems biology approaches and the normalisation of spaceflight metadata. The consortium is also informed with the latest developments across government, industry and academia. Their mission is to develop, share and encourage sample-processing standardisation and metadata normalisation of spaceflight omics experiments. This will allow for better harmonisation of data and increased gain of knowledge.

Lessons learned from previous space omics studies

A series of 29 studies were recently published by the consortium in the journal Cell. In the first publication, A New Era for Space Life Science: International Standards for Space Omics Processing, the authors addressed some of the unique technical and biological challenges during each stage of space omics experiments. Some of these challenges are summarised below:

  • Limitations in space, time and finances: Firstly, capacity limitations on orbiting platforms limit the number of experimental replicates and variables. Secondly, crew time is exceptionally limited for experimental procedures in spaceflight. Third, repeating unsuccessful experiments is both difficult due to the logistical and financial constraints and also results in longer waiting times compared to experiments on the ground.
  • Hardware and Housing: Biological experiments in space are rarely performed using standard ground equipment. Developing special hardware and housing technology that can operate in spaceflight conditions is an ongoing challenge. Communication will be increasingly crucial between the academic, government, and industry sectors developing and improving upon hardware designs.
  • Sample collection: There are often inconsistencies in how samples are obtained for analysis, in part due to limitations in crew time and finances.
  • Sample preservation: Adequate preservation of samples aboard the ISS is a continuing challenge and a hindrance to capturing unchanged biological responses.
  • Data curation and distribution: The space omics community need to construct a database unique to characteristics of space omics data. NASA GeneLab is the first comprehensive space omics database. It aims to optimise scientific return from spaceflight and ground simulation experiments. The repository currently contains more than 300 transcriptomic, epigenomic, proteomic, metabolomic, and metagenomic datasets from plant, animal, and microbial space experiments.
  • Data sharing: Sample-sharing schemes must be harnessed to maximise discoverability and reproducibility between researchers in the space omics discipline. For example, sharing a common biobank and sample-processing facility would be ideal. Space omics-sharing schemes are already implemented in Japan and the United States.

Future directions

ISSOP aims to provide concrete solutions to some of these challenges described in order to reduce confounding factors and promote harmonisation and interoperability between space omics datasets. This in turn will increase the accuracy of space omics studies. In the future, ISSOP aim to develop space omics recommendations across individual omics assays. They also hope to create guidelines for promising molecular biology laboratory techniques. An important component of future experiments and project sharing will be digitisation of sample handling using advanced robots. ISSOP can leverage lessons learned and develop an informed framework that can maximise scientific discovery while minimising ethical problems that may arise. Standardisation of space omics data through ISSOP could pave the way for cell space atlases and precision spaceflight medicine, which will improve the safety of humans travelling through space.

Join us during our rabbit hole sessions at the Festival of Genomics and Biodata, where we will have a series of exciting talks from NASA, including Erik Antonsen (Assistant Director, Human System Risk Management), Jennifer Fogarty (Chief Scientist, NASA Human Research Centre), Rebekah Reed (Assistant Director, Human Health and Performance Directorate) and Afshin Beheshti (Bioinformatician and Principal Investigator).

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Festival of Genomics / Multi-omics / Space