Astronauts living in space for an extended time are more likely to develop health issues such as sleep disruptions and cardiovascular problems. Now, thanks to new research, we might know the underlying cause of this. The study, published in the journal Cell, suggests that mitochondria experience changes in activity during spaceflight.
For the study, the scientists used results from the experiments conducted for over a decade on the International Space Station, including samples from 59 astronauts.
Mitochondria are referred to as the powerhouse of the cell. They generate most of the chemical energy needed to power the biochemical reactions of the cell. Any changes to this activity can significantly impact the organs of our body and jeopardize the immune system.
According to Afshin Beheshti, a researcher with KBR and the lead author of the paper, “Everything gets thrown out of whack, and it all starts with the mitochondria.”
The research used NASA’s GeneLab data as well as NASA’s study of identical twins, Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly, for over a year. NASA’s GeneLab opensource platform captures large amounts of space biology data from all over the world, which can be used to characterize and quantify molecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins.
Tissue samples from Mice flown on separate space missions indicated the connection between spaceflight and mitochondrial dysfunction. The immune system changes observed in astronaut Scott Kelly during his spaceflight in 2015 can be related to mitochondrial activity as well.
Beheshti told NASA that there are countermeasures and drugs for mitochondrial dysfunction already in use on Earth that can be evaluated for space use.
As more deep space missions are planned, these types of studies play a critical role in understanding the effects of radiation exposure, micro-gravity, and living in confined spaces.
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