Space exploration is continually growing, with time spent in space becoming longer and longer for astronauts. With that, though, come some serious repercussions, especially to astronauts' health.
With missions to the Moon and Mars upcoming, the push towards a better understanding of how space affects astronauts' bodies increases. Astronauts' brains, hearts, muscles, and bone mass all take their toll when they're up in microgravity environments.
Now, over 200 scientists came together to look into the matter and discovered that one biological organelle may lie behind all of these bodily changes in space — the mitochondria.
With a limited number of people who have been to space, the scientists did not have a large pool of participants to work with. Moreover, sending samples to space was another hurdle the researchers had to overcome, as this can be costly and time-consuming.
Hence the large number of cooperating scientists. They were keen to share their knowledge and resources.
The research teams pushed through, and Afshin Beheshti, the co-author of the study and researcher and bioinformatician at NASA for the GeneLab Project, told Inverse that his curiosity is what drove him as there are so many "unknowns."
The main question they focused their efforts on was: "Is there a master switch that could be changing your entire body in space?"
Turns out, there is. Changes in mitochondrial activity ended up being the common thread. "As we kept analyzing, certain biological patterns kept popping up," Beheshti said. "The mitochondria was surprising because that wasn’t really on my radar, but it connects a lot of these things together."
Mitochondria are organelles that work together to power cells in our body, breaking down nutrients into energy.
New research results are helping us uncover microgravity’s impact on the powerhouse of the cell: the mitochondria. These results used data collected over decades of research on the @Space_Station, including samples from 59 astronauts.— ISS Research (@ISS_Research) November 25, 2020
Check out what was learned: https://t.co/kTFidXMKCr
The team noticed that the mitochondria were distressed when in such environments as space, leading to changes in gene regulation, metabolism, and the operations of the immune system. The study mentions that it may be the reason astronauts suffer certain bone problems, vision issues, muscle mass loss, etc.
The study does highlight, however, that it still needs to be assessed whether these changes arise as the result of another process, or whether it's the mitochondria themselves that kick start these changes in the body.
As Beheshti mentioned to Inverse, "In my opinion, it's an effect. You go through a hyper-gravity effect, you get the stress that happens and once it stabilizes, something might change right away."
"This mitochondrial dysfunction I imagine is a cumulative effect due to all the changes," he continued.