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Microgravity causes big problems with human gene expression

A new study has shed light on how simulated microgravity, akin to the conditions experienced by astronauts, profoundly disrupts human gene expression.

In an era where space exploration and the prospect of space tourism are becoming increasingly realistic, understanding the effects of space travel on the human body is paramount.

This research from the University of Surrey deepens our understanding of the challenges posed by space travel but also explores the broader implications of prolonged bed rest on human health.

Impact of microgravity on humans

The allure of the cosmos has always captured human imagination, but venturing into this vast unknown comes with its unique set of challenges.

Astronauts embarking on space missions are exposed to microgravity, a condition that significantly alters physiological functions.

These alterations include immune suppression, increased inflammation, and a notable decrease in muscle mass and bone density.

As humanity stands on the brink of expanding its reach into space, grasping the molecular mechanisms behind these changes is crucial.

Professor Simon Archer, a leading figure in the molecular biology of sleep, spearheaded this research at the University of Surrey. He emphasizes the significance of their findings, saying, “This unique study represents the largest longitudinal dataset of time series gene expression in humans.”

How the study was conducted

The meticulous collection of time-series data, rather than snapshots from single time points, offers a comprehensive view of the body’s response to simulated microgravity.

Archer highlights the dramatic impact on the temporal organization of human gene expression, raising questions about the effects of extended periods of bed rest.

In collaboration with the European Space Agency and conducted at the MEDES space clinic in Toulouse, the study involved a rigorous 90-day protocol.

Twenty male participants underwent 60 days of constant bed rest with a -six-degree head-down tilt to simulate the effects of microgravity, preceded and followed by two weeks of baseline and recovery, respectively.

Findings and implications

The research team meticulously analyzed gene expression across various phases, revealing that 91 percent of gene expression underwent significant disruption. This disruption affected the rhythm, number, timing, and amplitude of genes that exhibit daily changes in their mRNA levels.

The alterations in gene expression were linked to critical bodily functions, including protein translation, immune responses, inflammatory processes, and muscle function.

Although muscle function disruptions were reversible post-recovery, lasting effects were observed in protein translation. These insights underscore the importance of developing strategies to mitigate the adverse effects of space travel on human health.

Microgravity, humans, and the future of space travel

Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, a renowned expert in sleep and physiology, reflects on the journey from deeming space travel as unattainable to its current status as a burgeoning industry.

He underscores the necessity of advancing our understanding of microgravity’s impact on the body, particularly as space tourism edges closer to reality. The next phase of their research aims to explore how microgravity affects sleep, circadian rhythms, and hormones.

Professor Keith Ryden, a prominent figure in space engineering, highlights the renewed focus on human spaceflight, exemplified by projects like NASA’s Artemis and the UK’s participation in the ISS via the UKSA Axiom programme.

The University of Surrey’s contributions, through this research, lay the groundwork for enhancing space travelers’ safety and well-being, reflecting its leading role in space research.

In summary, as we stand on the precipice of a new era of space exploration and tourism, the research conducted by the University of Surrey offers invaluable insights into the physiological challenges posed by microgravity.

By understanding and addressing these challenges, we pave the way for safer and more sustainable space travel, ensuring that the final frontier is within reach for future generations.

The full study was published in the journal iScience.


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