Mitochondrial Changes Key to Human Health Problems in Space

Astronaut Scott Kelly is working with the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox during a Rodent Research session with Bone Densitometer.
Credit: NASA

Living in space isn’t easy. There are notable impacts on the biology of living things in the harsh environment of space. A team of scientists has now identified a possible underlying driver of these impacts: the powerhouse of the cell, called mitochondria, experiences changes in activity during spaceflight.

Recently published in the journal Cell, these results used data collected over decades of experimental research on the International Space Station, including samples from 59 astronautsStudies such as these are critical to understanding the effects of low gravity, radiation, confined spaces, and more as NASA sends astronauts deep into space for extended missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

“We’ve found a universal mechanism that explains the kinds of changes we see to the body in space, and in a place we didn’t expect,” said Afshin Beheshti the lead author on the paper and a researcher with KBR, which provides contract support to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Everything gets thrown out of whack and it all starts with the mitochondria.”

The research also made use of a comprehensive database of animal studies collected on the GeneLab platform at Ames, as well as the NASA twin study comparing identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly over the course of a year. The GeneLab platform is the first of its kind to capture large amounts of space biology “omics” data that can be used to characterize and quantify biological molecules – such as DNARNA, and proteins – and their systematic effects on the structures and functions of organisms. GeneLab’s Analysis Working Group drew in scientists from all over the world to collaborate on the study and get the most out of the data housed on the open-source platform.

Mitochondria are tiny structures within cells that produce energy for the basic units of biology that make up our bodies. When that energy production breaks down, many of the body’s key organs and its immune system can be put in jeopardy. This new research indicates this breakdown in activity of mitochondria might contribute to health or performance challenges faced by humans in space.

The first clue about the connection between mitochondria and spaceflight came from research using rodents.

“When we started comparing the tissues from mice flown on separate space missions, we noticed that mitochondrial dysfunction kept popping up,” said Beheshti. “Whether we were looking at problems in the eyes or in the liver, the same pathways related to mitochondria were the source of the problem.”

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