Biology and beyond

Following on from our interview with microbiologist-turned-astronaut, Kate Rubins, I thought I’d see what else was on the books for biological research and beyond at NASA.

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May 31, 2017
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The impact of space exploration on all aspects of biological science, together with engineering and physical sciences, is an increasing area of interest with a wide range of implications for both life in space and on Earth. As such, dedicated journals for these types of studies are emerging, including the Nature partner journal, npj Microgravity

One area of research discussed during the interview with Kate Rubins, was of course, microbiology. How microbes react to the environmental conditions in space, with the most obvious and curious being microgravity, is an important area of interest for NASA given the potential impact this could have on human health. The consequences for bacterial exposure to microgravity, radiation and other unearthly conditions are not yet fully known. Does this result in bacteria becoming more prone to mutation and therefore more pathogenic? These are some of the considerations that the Human Health and Performance (HH&P) Microbiology team are focusing on, both in space and on Earth. Apart from ensuring the safety of the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS), this provides an exciting opportunity to study bacterial mutations and predict patterns that lead to antibiotic resistance; research that is currently ongoing.

Anatomical and health sciences are another obvious area of attention for NASA given that space exploration involves the transport of human beings into an environment that is poles apart from anything we encounter on Earth. Research has shown that microgravity disrupts the normal flow of blood to the lower part of the body and therefore increases flow in the upper body, causing what is known as a cephalad shift. As our bodies have not been designed to cope with these changes, this will have important consequences for human health. These include reduced blood volume, a decreased ability to control blood pressure, and reduced heart size, all of which become greater over time. These changes can lead to further problems related to vision, a loss of fitness, muscle atrophy and bone loss. Astronauts must consequently undergo extensive training and exercise regimes to promote aerobic fitness and try to counteract these changes during spaceflight.

Astronauts have also reported various symptoms relating to an altered immune system, including the reactivation of latent viruses and viral shedding but without any symptoms of sickness, as well as allergic reactions and persistent rashes occurring during spaceflight. A few studies have begun to try and determine the cause of these immunological phenotypes. Measurements of immune cells and cytokines over a 6 month period during spaceflight revealed increased numbers of white blood cells, reduced T cell function and alterations in cytokine production, which persisted for the duration of the mission. These long term immunological alterations may impact astronaut health and are consequently another focus for NASA.

Apart from healthcare, there are numerous other day to day activities that we take for granted here on Earth, but that are near impossible to undertake in space, including washing clothes, cleaning surfaces, and more critical issues such as dental care and emergency wound closure. These are all being investigated by The Biomedical Engineering for Exploration Space Technology (BEEST) Laboratory; a collaboration between the HH&P and Engineering Directorates. Many of these activities will require water-less methods, for example, the use of microwaves to sterilise objects and the use of a protein paste together with specific radio frequencies to treat and seal wounds, and dental work that will need to be performed without the dreaded dental drill. The aim is for these technologies to be transferable for use in hospitals, military battlefields and submarines, and in other isolated areas; another ongoing area of research for NASA. 

These are just a minute selection of the wide range of scientific studies currently being undertaken both on Earth and during spaceflight. More information on past and ongoing studies for biological sciences can be found here.

Go to the profile of Emily White

Emily White

Associate Editor, Nature Microbiology

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