Researchers may have discovered why astronauts have health problems in space

Mitochondria may be responsible for health problems in astronauts.
Image: NASA

No one would deny the risks of living in space. Although floating around in microgravity looks like a safe environment, astronauts living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are susceptible to a number of health problems.

While the causes of things like muscle wasting and bone density loss are known, other conditions remain a mystery. Researchers now think they have an answer thanks to recent discoveries uncovered by NASA’s open-source GeneLab platform.

The results show that the mitochondria found in human cells may malfunction in microgravity. This discovery has plenty of implications for future long-distance space travel as well as the health of current ISS astronauts.

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The Powerhouse of the Cell

Anyone that’s gone through the public school system knows that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. However, scientists have long wondered what else it does. As it happens, the mitochondria might play a role in the maintenance of several body systems.

Researchers found that mice with mitochondrial dysfunctions were also prone to problems with their eyes and liver. Meanwhile, they hypothesize that NASA astronaut Scott Kelly struggled with immune system problems during his time aboard the ISS for the same reason.

The team published its research in the journal Cell. It includes data collected from decades of studies conducted on the ISS. Samples from 59 astronauts are also part of the data.

Afshin Beheshti, the lead author of the study, says, “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. Everything gets thrown out of whack and it all starts with the mitochondria.”

It appears that living in space alters the mitochondria’s ability to produce energy. As that process is disrupted, other organs in the body (as well as the immune system) are susceptible to damage.

Problem to Address

The space sector is working hard to pioneer ways that allow astronauts to travel further away from Earth and live off-world for longer periods of time. This discovery highlights a key challenge presented by those ambitions. Living away from Earth is hard on the body. Now that scientists might know why they can start to address it.

Beheshti says, “This is a big step toward figuring out how our bodies can live healthily off-world. And the good news is, this is a problem we can already start to tackle. We can look at countermeasures and drugs we already use to deal with mitochondrial disorders on Earth to see how they might work in space, to start.”

Indeed, researchers can start studying whether or not mitochondria are responsible for a variety of problematic health conditions that astronauts often experience. They can also work towards solutions that will make it possible for humans to travel to Mars and even establish a permanent colony on the moon.

It will be interesting to see what new research stems from this study. Likewise, keep an eye on how it impacts the space industry in the coming years.


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