(ORDO NEWS) — It’s only a matter of time before ordinary people find themselves in space, participating in space tourism, or joining colonies far from Earth.
We need a much deeper understanding of how the environmental hazards of space will affect the biology of our cells, tissues, organs, and consciousness. For future space colonies, we need to know if we can reproduce under conditions different from those on Earth.
Scientists are just starting to explore how microgravity can affect the activity of our cells. Experiments with embryonic stem cells and models of embryonic development in the first few weeks in space will help us determine whether it is realistic for humans to reproduce in conditions other than Earth.
The ability to reproduce in space has been evaluated in several animals, including insects, amphibians, fish, reptiles, birds, and rodents. They found that organisms such as fish, frogs and geckos could very well produce fertilized eggs during space flight that could then develop on Earth.
But the picture in mammals is more complex. For example, a study showed that the reproductive cycle of mice is disrupted by exposure to microgravity. Another study showed that exposure to microgravity causes negative neurological changes in rats.
Our cells did not evolve to work in such conditions. They evolved on Earth in a unique gravitational field. Systems that have evolved to work perfectly under Earth’s gravity can suffer when its strength changes.
The scientists investigated whether embryonic stem cells, which are pluripotent, are susceptible to microgravity and can develop into any cell in the body. There is now evidence that when fetal rodent stem cells are exposed to microgravity, their ability to develop into desired cell types is impaired.
Through experiments, scientists have found that induced stem cells, which are produced from mature cells in our bodies, develop faster in simulated microgravity. Two batches of these stem cells are currently on the ISS to see if these results can be replicated in space.
If adult stem cells develop faster in space, then we can produce them in orbit, since it is difficult to cultivate enough stem cells on Earth that are needed to treat degenerative diseases.
Beyond normal cellular processes, it is also unclear how fertilization, hormone production, lactation, and birth itself will be affected by exposure to microgravity.
Short-term exposure probably won’t have too much of an effect on our cells. But longer exposures are likely to have an effect.
Scientists offer two ways to protect against the negative effects of microgravity: intervention at the cellular level through the use of drugs or nanotechnology, or intervention at the ecological level by simulating the Earth’s gravity in spacecraft or colonies. Both areas of research are in their early stages.
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