Spending an extended time in space is known to impact various aspects of health, from muscle and bone regeneration to the functioning of organs, the cardiovascular system, and the nervous system. Now, researchers have found that disruptions in mitochondrial function may underly these negative health impacts.
Mitochondria are tiny membrane-bound organelles known as cellular ‘powerhouses’ as they generate most of the chemical energy within cells. Should they lose function, there is less energy production within cells, which leads to many key processes and immune functions within the body to breakdown.
For their study, the researchers examined data from decades of research on astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), including the famous Twin Study and DNA samples taken from 59 astronauts. They also analyzed information from the comprehensive NASA GeneLab database of animal studies at the Ames Research Center, an open-source platform that combines data from various areas of biology, from genomics and proteomics to metabolomics and glycomics.
The first indication that mitochondria might be the leading culprit behind health issues after space flight came from comparing tissues from mice flown into space on separate missions. Whether they later ended up with problems in their eyes or liver, they found that the same pathways related to mitochondria were always implicated.
These results were then supported by data from human astronaut studies, in which researchers noticed changes in cells within blood and urine samples that are attributable to altered mitochondrial activity.
“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,” says Afshin Beheshti, lead author of the paper. “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.”