There are mice on­board the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion

Make friends with the space gym

Focus-Science and Technology - - CONTENTS -

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.


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