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Down the Rabbit Hole: Space research and Project Maleth – Joseph Borg, Associate Professor, University of Malta

Joseph Borg is an Associate Professor at the University of Malta and the Project Lead of the Maleth Program and the SpaceOMIX missions. Project Maleth is Malta’s first mission to the International Space Station. The team are using multi-omic technologies to analyse the skin microbiome of diabetic foot ulcers and the human skin microbiome.

Please note the transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

FLG: Hello everyone, strap yourselves in for the latest Down the Rabbit Hole interview. Today, we’re going to be talking about all things space with Joseph Borg. So, before we kick off, Joseph, can you introduce yourself and tell everyone a little about what you do as well.

Joseph Borg: Thank you, Shannon, for inviting me to this interview. I’m Joseph Borg. I am an academic and an Associate Professor at the University of Malta. I’ve been working in the fields of DNA and genetics for the past 10-11 years. But also, for around 2 years, I have been looking at space, which I will talk about more in this interview.

FLG: Before we discuss some of the stuff that’s being done in Malta, I think it would be good if you could provide us with a short history of some of the genetic research that has been done in space.

Joseph Borg: The use of genetics and DNA in the context of space entered its golden age in the late 2010s. The first manipulation or handling of DNA in space, and sequencing, was done in 2016. So, it’s not a very long time ago. That was the very first time an astronaut – Kate Rubins – sequenced DNA in space. Later, throughout 2017 and 2018, RNA was sequencing in space, by other astronauts.

The technique was designed in such a way, so that instead of sending DNA from Earth to space, and then doing the work in space, the cells were grown in space, DNA was harvested in space, and that DNA was sequenced in space. So, it was a whole ecosystem in itself. And this was not too long ago.

In fact the very famous and well-known tool, CRISPR-Cas9, has also been used in space to instigate DNA cuts. The idea was to see how DNA was repaired in space. And this has important ramifications for this decade, and in the future. So, it’s a very recent area of research.

FLG: Why is space and microgravity such an interesting environment for research? Why is everyone so fascinated with this concept?

Joseph Borg: There are many reasons. There is the age-old promise of venturing out of Earth into low Earth orbit and onto the ISS (International Space Station). And now we know that people are once again going to the moon. There’s nothing completely novel there, because we went to the moon in the 1960s and 70s. But now, it seems that space has caught up again, and beyond the moon, Mars is also in the equation. So, there’s that renewed interest. To venture deeper into space, to the Moon and Mars, and be able to stay longer in space, the genetics and the biochemistry of life needs to be perfected. So that’s one major area of research of interest.

Of equal interest, and not many people know or appreciate it, is that by conducting space research, the results that one can find can be applied back on Earth. Astronauts living on board the ISS are operating in confined spaces, and they need to live like that for months on end. The things that they need to develop, that they need to do, whether it be growing foods or maybe accessing medicine or conducting research to monitor one’s health… tackling these challenges can have direct implications and applications on Earth. That’s another reason why there’s renewed interest in the use of space for research.

FLG: Many people argue about why we’re spending millions and millions and millions on space research when we have other priorities on Earth. What are some of the counter-arguments to this?

Joseph Borg: Let’s look at health. The cost of space research is far less right now money spent on health and medicine in general. And the expense and the funds that go towards space research contribute towards all major areas of science. By science here, I’m being very generic in the context of things like engineering and materials research, biology, chemistry, physics, connectivity, IT and AI.

There are many other counter arguments, such as the use of satellite imagery and the idea to predict or identify disasters, be it related to climate change, or other natural phenomenon, such as major storms or hurricanes or tsunamis. I think all of these developments will have a positive ripple effect back on earth.

FLG: What are some of the major challenges of conducting research in space?

Joseph Borg: There are many. For example, you can can plan all of your experiments, but if things go wrong during launch, everything would be lost. Conversely, back on earth, if something goes wrong, even though it is costly, things can be repeated in a short span of time.

Luckily, since the field of space research is now growing so quickly, there’s a lot of support, a lot of information and a lot of opportunity. So there is often the possibility to have some form of plan B to fall back onto. There are now more regular flights and the possibility to conduct multiple experiments in space (not just a one off). So, all of these give you peace of mind, that the experiments being planned and done can be followed up for validation, and replication, which are hallmarks of traditional science.

FLG: How are advanced technologies being adapted to work in space? I know we have portable sequencers and things like that. How are we adapting the methods that we use in the lab to work in space?

Joseph Borg: This is a very fascinating and exciting question to answer. Because of course, largely, the experiments in our labs are planned, and they’re also executed by the scientists themselves. In space, we have accessibility in the sense that we have astronauts onboard the ISS conduct research. However, the astronauts time will tend to cost more than that of a scientist working just across the road. So, to that effect, there’s a lot of research and development, and also innovation in how to plan and execute experiments, so that they can be done in an autonomous fashion and can be controlled remotely. Experiments can be monitored and controlled using remote connectivity from your home office or from your lab.

This is interesting because, even though I am no expert in the field, this type of technology has also been used in the example of robotic surgery, whereby patients in the States or in UK or in Malta, are being operated upon by a surgeon, or a specialist who’s located in Italy or in Germany, for instance. So, this idea of remote controlling machinery or equipment, can relate perfectly to what we do here on Earth and what can be be done kilometres above Earth.

FLG: It’s really exciting. Would you be able to tell us more about the research that is being done is Malta?

Joseph Borg: There is Project Maleth, which is basically a program, because we intend to do multiple missions. Project Maleth was designed and conceived in late 2020. At the time, we also approached the Ministry of Foreign and International Affairs – what could be more foreign than doing research in space?When the idea sunk in that this was something that would happen not just out of the country, but also out of this world, it enticed a lot of people.

Myself, I also have a number of students. For example, Christine Gatt, who is working on her PhD project, looking specifically at microorganisms that occupy diabetic foot ulcers. The idea was that if these bacteria and microorganisms tend to be resistant and very hard on the skin and resistant to treatment on earth, then how would they react and adapt to the harsh environment of space? Are there any microorganisms that will thrive more or less than what one would expect on earthly conditions? Can we uncover new markers or biomarkers that can be used therapeutically? So these were some of the objectives of this project.

Project Maleth had its first mission last year in August, when we sent the very first experiment. And in fact, it was the very first experiment for Malta – of a biomedical nature – to be sent to the ISS. So, we were very happy about that. This comes with all bells and whistles of sending the experiment on a SpaceX rocket – you get to see the launch. We saw the launch from our homes, of course.

Then, in less than a day, the actual Dragon capsule arrived and docked to the ISS. And you get to see this by following these online live NASA or SpaceX channels. You get to see the astronauts handling the payloads from Dragon inside the ISS. And then, of course, there comes a part where we saw European astronaut, Thomas Pesquet, handling the Maltese experiment, saying a few words about how interesting it was to see new players in space. Then there’s the assembly of the cube on board the ISS.

I wouldn’t say the rest is history, because the rest is still ongoing. But that is how it all started. So, myself, I have had the opportunity to speak at a number of conferences and workshops, one of which was The Festival of Genomics and Biodata. The enthusiasm that has been garnered from the young scientists, the students and also peers, is encouraging us to do more of the same.

FLG: What are some of the insights that you’ve gained so far?

Joseph Borg: Even though the project is purely biomedical in nature, there were some very interesting observations or lessons to be learned in terms of connectivity. From here in Malta, there had to be almost 24/7 contact, but during a 24-hour period, there are a number of signal losses when the ISS is beyond the reach of connectivity. So there were many things we learned about how to connect, how to communicate and how to switch on the onboard camera inside the cube experiment. So, all of these were very simple and silly things to do locally. But when you are controlling a camera, from here to space, it is a little bit more fun and challenging, to put it mildly.

In the context of biomedical insights and research, there’s always this heart thumping moment. We were very anxious to see or to learn whether the microorganisms sent to space and back were actually still alive. And in fact, they were. We were already aware, and we did previous experiments that showed microorganisms present in special buffer solution, and how long they can be maintained for – weeks on end, or even months on end. And we knew that conceptually it worked. But to see, for real, what you’ve sent to space and back… that it actually works. That was also something we were eager and anxious to learn.

Once we know the microorganisms flourish and grow, there are then a series of genetic steps or experiments, some of which have been done already, and others which are being done jointly with our partners. The experiments that have been done already include reading bits and pieces of these microorganisms, also known as 16S typing, using next generation sequencing. This allows us to type and profile all the different bacteria and microorganisms that are present in the samples. In doing so, we can therefore compare them a three-way manner. Why three-way? Because there is the original sample obtained since day one, which never left our labs. Then, there is a second batch of samples, which remained on Earth, but persisted in an analogue experimental manner throughout the whole duration of the experiment, and then the experiment was halted. And then there were the samples sent to space and back.

So, we have the same tissue type, which was split in three. And now we have genetic data and information on a three-way comparison experiment. This is replicated six times because there are six different biological samples. And you could see that the bacteria in space appeared to have a mind of their own. They’re very heterogeneous in terms of types of bacteria. Whereas those that remained on Earth, clustered more closely together, there wasn’t that much observed. This in itself is already a very interesting observation. And of course, having seen this, we now are testing these microorganisms at the complete genome level, in a process known as metagenomic sequencing. We are doing this together with our partners in the States. And we are very, very excited to see the results.

FLG: That’s really, really interesting. What are your future plans? What are the next steps for the programme? I know you mentioned that there’s going to be another mission.

Joseph Borg: Yes, so the next mission will take place this year in May, and the May experiment will be three-fold as well. Two of the experiments that we did last year will be repeated this year. These are follow-up experiments of the microbiome research on human foot ulcers. There is also a Saccharomyces cerevisiae sample, a baker’s yeast sample, which we want to send to space and back. We’ll be looking at these closely using some proprietary novel tools that have been developed by myself, and also by our sponsoring colleagues in biotech.

We will also be replicating or doing the same thing as a STEM based research programme. When I say STEM based, I mean how we are talking to young children in schools, primary and secondary. We speak about biomedical science, space biology and space bioscience. Then, we conclude by offering the opportunity for them to have a message, a poem, a piece of artwork or a drawing, or anything that they want, which is saved in a digital manner, to be saved inside the biocube and sent to space itself. And whilst in space, their message can be broadcast or opened from space down to earth. This is something which we’ve noticed instils a passion or drive for young kids to study science.

FLG: Yeah, that’s really, really cool. How do you work with the other space programmes?

Joseph Borg: This is a bit complicated. We are represented by the Malta Council for Science and Technology (MCST) which represents the interests of Malta, with the European Space Agency (ESA). And in fact, through the MCST, we also secured to have some form of public dissemination and outreach promotion of the experiment with the ESA astronaut, Thomas Pesquet, which worked beautifully. So, we are hoping to do the same for May.

Then, there’s more of the inside workings of how these things work with respect to space organisations. This is because when the experiments are designed, they need to be reviewed and vetted initially by us being Maltese and in Europe, and vetted by the ESA. But then, there is also some form of toxicological analysis being performed by NASA and their own lab of toxicology. And then you get the results back whether it’s green flag and all systems go, or else you need to sort of adapt or change something to fall in line. So, this is really, really amazing.

There are also bits and pieces whereby you have to write about the experiment. And this is published on a database that is maintained by NASA itself as well. So, you get to talk with these people, and that is also a very fun factor in itself.

Myself, I am also involved in at least two things related to space and science. One of which is an analysis working group called NASA GeneLab. So, it has many working groups, some focus on just animals, some focus on plants, and some focus on microbes, and another focuses on multi-omics and all things genomics – and I am in one of these.

You get to see people with likeminded ideas and project plans, which is very encouraging us to do more and to write papers for publications together. In a similar fashion, within Europe, there is also a funded topical team called ESA Space Omics. And there are a number of people hailing from different European countries, myself included.

There is a lot of important work ongoing with respect to policy making or reviewing the data of the contributions by European scientists who work in genetics and DNA with respect to space research. That is slowly building up to showcase what is being done. I think in all this, in order for the community that work in science to show to the people in general, how important this is, it needs to be done in a slow, consistent manner. And in an educational manner. The people need to be told what these things stand for, what they do, and how they can be of benefit. Failure to do so, you will get all sorts of smiles and jokes, which we’ve been hearing for many, many years now. Like “You always think about the stars” or ”Your mind is in the clouds.” I would call these charming jokes!

FLG: Definitely, education is so important in areas like this. What are you most excited about for the future?

Joseph Borg: I think what is best about the future is yet to be written. So, anyone who’s able to write their way and plan their way, or ideas or designs or wishes. If you think about that, it’s completely open. It’s definitely going to be an amazing decade ahead. It’s also simply mind blowing that within our lifetime we will see huge developments in the context of access to the Moon and Mars, even just for the sake of exploration. I think humans, in general… there’s this idea of exploring unknown worlds. So, way back in time, it used to be exploring countries and across continents. And there was a sense of adventure in that right. Now, it seems for many, many years, I think most of Earth has been explored, except perhaps maybe the deep abyss of the ocean or some dense forests. So, the idea of taking adventure out of this world is not something impossible, or unheard of.

I also think, and we’ve seen this briefly last year, and we’re going to see it this month (in March), is that where as previous access to space was something exclusive to the major or national agencies of space, there is now an opening for private and commercial entities, and citizens, to access space. We’ve seen last year a private mission, which was a charity drive as well, like INSPRATION4 by SpaceX. So, these were completely private citizens orbiting around Earth for three days, and then dropping back. Next month, on a SpaceX mission by Axiom Space, we will see for the first time ever, four private citizens in one mission, going to the ISS and staying there for a number of days, conducting experiments and many other tasks, and coming back to Earth to tell us all about it. So, what this means is that probably this is going to continue and continue. I think this is true in many scientific endeavours and challenges. I think some exciting discoveries and breakthroughs are yet to be made.

FLG: It’s exciting! Thank you so much for speaking to me today, Joseph. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and I’m excited to see how things evolve as well. Thank you.

Joseph Borg: Thank you very much. Thanks for your time.