Are These Glowing Green Nanoparticles The Key To Ending Aging? SpaceX Dragon Capsule Delivers New Experiment To ISS

Wednesday, 08 May 2019 - 1:36PM
ESA
Astrobiology
Nanotechnology
Wednesday, 08 May 2019 - 1:36PM
Are These Glowing Green Nanoparticles The Key To Ending Aging? SpaceX Dragon Capsule Delivers New Experiment To ISS
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Image Credit: ESA/Gianni Ciofani
The European Space Agency wants to harness nanoparticles to reverse human aging. The Nano Antioxidants Experiment will study how a particular nanoparticle protects living cells that are exposed to radiation and free radicals in space. The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft delivered this experiment to the International Space Station on Monday.

To understand free radicals, it helps to have a basic understanding of atomic structure.

Atoms are structured a bit like our solar system: you have protons and neutrons bonded together in the center (creating the nucleus, which you can imagine as the Sun) with electrons orbiting the nucleus in concentric circles much like planets.

Molecules are two (or more) atoms that form chemical "Velcro" bonds to each other. H2O – water, at the risk of sounding patronizing – is the most famous example.

A free radical is simply a molecule with one extra electron whizzing around its outer shell. This additional electron makes the host molecule extremely unstable – it will either A. Steal electrons from other molecules in an attempt to self-stabilize, or B. Lose this extra electron to another molecule that is also seeking its own electron.

Either way, this triggers something of a pinball effect. As electrons ricochet from molecule to molecule, they inflict damage on cells and DNA (among other things in your body you might consider important). The human body naturally creates a certain number of free radicals but lifestyle factors like X-ray radiation, pollution and chemical exposure also contribute to the number of free radicals in your body. The process itself is called oxidation – yes, just like rust – and if enough free radicals build up, they create a condition called oxidative stress.

Antioxidants, as the name suggests, are compounds that neutralize this oxidative effect. Vitamins A, C, and E that are found in fruits and vegetables are common examples. The problem with antioxidants is that they are not a one-and-done solution that will stay in your body forever. You have to keep consuming antioxidants in order to enjoy their protective benefits.

This brings us back to the Nano Antioxidants Experiment. The nanoparticle in question is called nanoceria, which derives from a type of ceramic. Nanoceria has surface defects that can absorb these rogue electrons just like antioxidants and scientists want to see whether they can neutralize free radicals for extended periods of time – up to several weeks.

Researchers are especially interested in how these particles will function in space. Experiments performed in 2017 were promising, and this sample will be subjected to the rigors of space travel including microgravity and cosmic radiation. These results will be compared to a control sample kept on Earth.

Simply existing in space takes an enormous toll on the human body, from muscle wasting in microgravity to radiation exposure and genetic mutations. Consequences of extended space travel are so severe we might as well not even consider it until we can mitigate these factors. The Nano Antioxidants Experiment is a step towards prolonged manned missions to deep space with implications for people suffering age-related and muscular degeneration on Earth. "Who wants to live forever" indeed.

Image Credit: ESA/Gianni Ciofani
Science
Space
ESA
Astrobiology
Nanotechnology
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