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Northwestern microbiome project to launch June 29 for International Space Station

Studies of twin mice and twin men aim to discover effects of space on body’s microbiome

spacex dragon
The mice will head for the International Space Station on board the SpaceX Dragon.

EVANSTON - Twenty laboratory mice are poised to play an important role in preparing humans to go to Mars. A Northwestern University-led study of the microbiome in space is one of five science investigations scheduled to launch Friday, June 29, on board the SpaceX Dragon and head for the International Space Station (ISS).

Scientists Fred W. Turek and Martha H. Vitaterna are leading the project. They and seven team members will attend the early morning launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and are now in Florida working on preparations.

The researchers want to learn how the microgravity environment of space affects the community of thousands of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, or microbiota, and how space affects circadian rhythms and other physiological systems.

The mouse study complements the Northwestern team’s previous study of identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly, one of 10 NASA-funded groups studying the twins to learn how living in space for a long period of time affects the human body.

“This rodent research mission — just NASA’s eighth since completion of the ISS and the rejuvenation of America’s space biology program — is analogous to the Year in Space human twins study, but we will in effect be working with 10 identical siblings from two different families,” said Turek, the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Biology and director of Northwestern’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology. “Because a trip to Mars and back is expected to take several years, we need to determine how the gut’s microbiota might be altered in zero gravity over long timescales.”

The 20 mice aboard the ISS, half of which will spend a record 90 days in orbit, will be complemented by Earth-bound controls in three different groups, including one living in a highly specialized NASA simulator that replicates the exact minute-by-minute conditions — but with gravity — inside the space station.

These findings, as well as the results from the Twins Study, are expected to lead to better protection of astronaut health during long-term space missions. (Results of the Twins Study are scheduled for publication later this year.) Findings from the rodent study also may lead to improved treatment of gastrointestinal, immune, metabolic and sleep disorders in humans on Earth.

“It’s important to understand how space travel may impact the circadian system, since it coordinates so many biological processes,” said Vitaterna, research professor and deputy director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology at Northwestern. “The exertion of liftoff, absence of gravity and confined living arrangement all add to the stress of life in space. The key to adapting may be in the body’s ability to maintain harmony across systems.”

For the first time, NASA will video record the mice in space for 48 continuous hours to help the researchers study the animals’ sleep-wake cycles.

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