NASA Launches Fruit-Fly Astronauts into Space
It's official. Fruit flies are Earth's newest astronauts.
Partly in response to the National Research Council's call for "an organized effort to identify common changes in gene expression among key model systems in space," NASA researcher, Sharmila Battacharya, announced the NASA Ames Research Center's plans to send a fruit fly colony up to the International Space station, aboard the 5th Space-x commercial resupply mission.
"We are sending fruit flies to the ISS. They will orbit earth alongside astronauts helping us explore the effects of long term spaceflight on human beings." explains Battacharya. "The flies will be living in a habitat developed at aims called the fruit fly lab. Inside, they will live the hurried lives of fruit flies: living, dying, reproducing, and experiencing the same space radiation and micro gravity as their human counterparts." Cameras will closely monitor the flies, and samples of them will occasionally be sent down to the lab on Earth for further analysis.
You may not think it to look at them, but fruit flies are an obvious choice for this kind of research. Officially called Drosophila melanogaster (or DM) and commonly used in genetic research labs, these most common of insects actually have a lot in common with us humans, biologically speaking. According to Bhattacharya, about 77% of all know human disease genes have an identifiable DM counterpart, and 50% of DM protein sequences have mammalian analogues. They reproduce incredibly quickly allowing multiple generations to develop in small intervals, their genome has already been completely mapped out, and unlike humans, they all share identical DNA coding.
With the help of these flies, the team hopes to learn more about some important issues that could stand in the way of healthy space travel in the future. For example, the previously observed decreased function of human immunity when away from earth could present itself as an obstacle to human colonization on Mars. They want to study the effects that space travel has on immunity, but also on sleep, stress, cardiovascular fitness, and aging. Hopefully, a closer study of these affected fruit flies will elucidate these issues early enough for further research to be done on finding solutions before people build their lives out in space.