CEC Faculty Articles


A Novel Technique for Performing Space Based Radiation Dosimetry Using DNA: Results from GRaDEx-I and the Design of GRaDEx-II

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1999 Shuttle Small Payloads Symposium

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Because of the large amounts of cosmic radiation in the space environment relative to that on earth, the effects of radiation on the physiology of astronauts is of major concern. Doses of radiation which can cause acute or chronic biological effects are to be avoided, therefore determination of the amount of radiation exposure encountered during space flight and assessment of its impact on biological systems is critical. Quantifying the radiation dosage and damage to biological systems, especially to humans during repetitive high altitude flight and during long duration space flight is important for several reasons. Radiation can cause altered biosynthesis and long term genotoxicity resulting in cancer and birth defects, etc. Radiation damage to biological systems depends in a complex way on incident radiation species and their energy spectra. Typically non-biological, i.e. film or electronic monitoring systems with narrow energy band sensitivity are used to perform dosimetry and then results are extrapolated to biological models. For this reason it may be desirable to perform radiation dosimetry by using biological molecules e.g. DNA or RNA strands as passive sensors. A lightweight genotoxicology experiment was constructed to determine the degree to which in-vitro naked DNA extracted from tissues of a variety of vertebrate organisms is damaged by exposure to radiation in a space environment. The DNA is assayed by means of agarose gel electrophoresis to determine damage such as strand breakage caused by high momentum particles and photons, and base oxidation caused by free radicals. The length distribution of DNA fragments is directly correlated with the radiation dose. It is hoped that a low mass, low cost, passive biological system to determine dose-response relationship (increase in strand breaks with increase in exposure) can be developed to perform radiation dosimetry in support of long duration space flight, and to predict negative effects on biological systems (e.g. astronauts and greenhouses) in space. The payload was flown in a 2.5 cubic foot Get Away Special (GAS) container through NASA's GAS program. It was subjected to the environment of the space shuttle cargo bay for the duration of the STS-91 mission (9 days). Results of the genotoxicology and radiation dosimetry experiment (GRaDEx-I) as well as the design of an improved follow on payload are presented.

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