There are mice onboard the International Space Station
Make friends with the space gym
Our bodies don’t react well to the low-gravity environment of space. Our muscles don’t have to work as hard, so they start to waste away. Our bones get weaker and our heart pumps blood slower. To counter this, astronauts spend two hours each day exercising to stave off muscle and bone loss. For a long-duration mission, we’ll need to follow a strict exercise plan, unless we can invent a spacecraft with its own artificial gravity so that the body behaves as it does on Earth.
Past space missions have given us plenty of insight into the physical effects of space, but there’s one major aspect that has, until recently, been neglected – the microbiome. Over the past few years, scientists have become increasingly aware of the crucial role that our body’s army of microbes plays in our health, linked to everything from cancer and obesity to depression and diabetes. So how might our microbiome fare in space?
In March 2015, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly began a year-long stay aboard the ISS – the longest that anyone had spent there – as part of a mission to study the long-term effects of spaceflight on the body. Now, researchers are poring over the data.
“If you’re sending a person into space, you’re not just sending a person, you’re also sending trillions of microorganisms,” says Dr Martha Vitaterna of Northwestern University, one of the scientists studying Kelly’s microbiome.
A diverse gut microbiome is generally thought of as healthy, but both diet and stress can change it pretty quickly. Because Kelly’s diet on the ISS was so restricted, Vitaterna says that the team expected to see a significant decrease in the diversity of microorganisms in his gut, but preliminary results show that this didn’t happen. What’s more any changes that did take place went back to normal fairly quickly once he returned to Earth.
Another NASA project is set to shed even more light on the microbiome in space. Earlier this year, the Rodent Research-7 experiment sent mice to the ISS in a bid to find out how changes in the rodents’ microbiomes impact other aspects of their health, including their sleep and circadian rhythm. The results aren’t expected until next year, but they should help us to understand how humans’ microbiomes, and sleep patterns, might change in space. And if they back up the Scott Kelly study, it’ll be good news. When we do eventually leave Earth for good, we might lose bone and muscle mass, but perhaps we’ll get to keep our microbes.
“ASTRONAUTS SPEND TWO HOURS EACH DAY EXERCISING TO STAVE OFF MUSCLE AND BONE LOSS”