Fippled Cellular Power Plant Explains Astronaut Health Problems

Many of the diseases astronauts are exposed to on long-term space flights can be related to a malfunction in their cell’s powerhouse, the mitochondria. This is suggested by a comprehensive study conducted on data collected on board the International Space Station (ISS).

The work is just one of 29 scientific articles unveiled on Wednesday (25), the result of a collaboration between four major space agencies and more than 200 researchers around the world. With them comes the largest spatial-biological data ever created in the history of science on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the ISS, which began in October 2000.

The aim is to increase knowledge in preparation for manned missions to the moon and mars, which have been defined as the goals of various space programs.

The results, which were published online in five scientific journals of the Cell Press group, are based on experiments and observations with astronauts, animal models, plants and cell cultures as well as supplementary on-site tests. The extensive database available for research shows American astronaut Scott Kelly’s one-year mission aboard the ISS, which was carried out while his twin brother Mark Kelly (also an astronaut and now-elected Senator from the state of Arizona) monitored the site has been. .

Mark Kelly and his brother Scott; Both are astronauts and one of them spent a year on the International Space Station to see what happens. (Image credit: NASA)

In addition, there is constant monitoring information from more than 50 astronauts with a representative total sample of around 10% of all people who have ever been in space. The 29 papers, 10 of which are still under peer review, comprised an international network of collaborators covering the space agencies Nasa (USA), Jaxa (Japan), ESA (Europe) and Roscosmos (Russia).

In particular, work with mitochondria has been published in the journal Cell. The first author was the Brazilian researcher Willian da Silveira of Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “It was three years of analysis, we started this work in early 2018 and will now publish it at the end of 2020,” says the researcher.

“And when we first looked at different types of cell cultures and mouse tissues, we saw that different things were happening [no espaço]. We saw the expression [ativação] From the genes, markers in DNA and epigenetics, we had access to some protein data and data about how mouse metabolism behaves, especially in muscle. “

Upon analysis, all measured changes caused by the combination of microgravity and increased radiation indicated mitochondrial dysfunction. The next step in this discovery was to review data collected from blood and urine tests by astronauts, including that of the NASA Twin Study Project, which found the same phenomenon.

“When we analyzed the data from these astronauts, we found that the brother who stayed in space had altered mitochondrial genes, became more expressed and produced much more,” he said. “And that is exactly what supported our hypothesis. And so it came about that we completed our analysis in the very month that the International Space Station completed 20 years [habitada]. ”

The result could point to new customization options for long-haul flights, especially now that space agencies are looking to promote new manned missions to the moon and, in the future, to Mars. Da Silveira and colleagues point out in their article that drug or nutritional interventions already used to treat mitochondrial dysfunction in patients on Earth may have beneficial effects on astronauts by treating a variety of conditions, from muscle loss to retinal problems , by alleviating problems heart, kidney and immunology.

This week’s cell cover with a picture of Scott Kelly on the ISS. (Image credit: Scott Kelly)


Among the studies there are also those that help determine the resilience of astronauts to long-term space flights.

An article by Sylvain Costes of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California shows that a good way to gauge the effects of radiation damage is to quantify the presence of double-stranded DNA breaks in immune cells. from a drop of blood that may come from a prick on the finger.

It would be a simple test that could provide an assessment of the extent to which a given astronaut is more or less resistant to the inevitable damage to DNA from radiation from interplanetary space. It would also be easy to take similar action during the mission and monitor the spaceman.

The result is again directly related to situations that people experience here on earth. “We proposed a method of monitoring baseline levels of DNA damage that may be caused by blood sampling or finger pricking so that we can predict the health risks associated with radiation exposure in both a space mission and a space mission using radiation therapy procedures certain types of cancer such as prostate cancer, ”explains Ivan Paulino de Lima, Brazilian researcher at Ames and co-author of the work.

Likewise, one of the studies led by Cristopher Mason and Afshin Beheshti indicated that specific microRNA sequences (small versions of the messenger molecule of the genetic system) are produced in both rodents and humans in response to space travel. In addition, inhibiting the expression of these molecules reduces cardiovascular damage in human tissues. These microRNA sequences would be both a marker of problems and a therapeutic target to alleviate them.


Despite the encouraging results in identifying and mitigating problems related to space travel, much remains to be done. A detailed review article, also published in Cell, reveals all the risks and unknowns that still exist, especially for long-term missions and far from Earth, where cosmic and solar radiation is fully exposed. And the number of points at which the risk is high (not only to the health of the astronauts, but also to the success of the mission) on a trip to Mars shows that we are not ready to try, if it is because the proposal envisages taking the risks into account (see box below).

With that in mind, it seems a precautionary measure to begin with longer stays on and around the moon, from where you can return in a few days.

The full article package can be found at

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