Student-designed project will investigate basis of telomere lengthening in
WASHINGTON, July 28, 2022 (Genes in Space PR) – Student Pristine Onuoha has won the eighth national
Genes in Space STEM competition. Onuoha, who attends East Chapel Hill High School in
Chapel Hill, NC, seeks to understand the mechanism behind telomere lengthening, a
chromosomal change that has been observed in space travelers. Her experiment will be
performed by astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) next year.
Telomeres are structures that protect DNA from damage, and shorten with age and wear.
Surprisingly, telomere lengthening has been observed in space travelers, notably Astronaut
Scott Kelly, the subject of NASA’s Twin Study. Onuoha’s experiment will explore the possibility
that telomere lengthening is caused by a space-induced proliferation of stem cells—
undifferentiated cells from which specialized body components arise and which typically have
Onuoha developed her proposal with guidance from her teacher, Kimberly Manning, and her
mentor, Harvard University scientist Ana Karla Cepeda Diaz. In their company, Onuoha will
travel to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to watch her experiment launch to space in 2023.
This announcement concludes the 2022 Genes in Space competition. Founded by Boeing and
miniPCR bio, Genes in Space invites students in grades 7 through 12 to design biology
experiments that address real-world challenges in space exploration. Previous contest winners
have explored phenomena ranging from DNA repair to immune dysfunction that have achieved
significant experimental milestones, including the first use of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing in
space. The competition receives additional sponsorship from the ISS National Laboratory and
New England Biolabs.
Onuoha’s proposal was selected from a competitive field of 602 submissions from 1,175
students across the U.S. Authors of the top five proposals were invited to present their ideas to
a distinguished panel of scientists, educators, and technologists at the ISS Research & Development Conference in Washington, D.C. The judges announced their selection at the
conference Thursday afternoon.