The plan is to place 5,000 tardigrades and 128 glow-in-the-dark baby squids on SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which will launch June 3 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They are then loaded into the International Space Station (ISS) to study over time. While it may seem like a weird mission, NASA believes it will help scientists better understand the effects of space travel on the human body.
Tardigrades are known for being virtually indestructible. Despite being less than a tenth of an inch long, they have survived radiation explosions, intense pressure and the desolate vacuum of space. Scientists will look for any genetic changes that occur while the tardigrades are in space, as they could help us better understand how they adapt to new environments and produce antioxidants (which they use to supplement their diets).
“Space flight can be a very challenging environment for organisms, including humans, that have evolved for Earth’s conditions,” said Thomas Boothby, a molecular biologist at the University of Wyoming and the lead scientist on the ISS experiment. “One of the things we really want to do is understand how tardigrades survive and reproduce in these environments and if we can learn about the tricks they use and adapt them to protect astronauts.
Meanwhile, the baby squids will be part of another experiment on the ISS that focuses on their glow-in-the-dark capabilities. That particular species of squid emits an eerie blue glow, caused by the symbiotic bacteria that colonize their light organs.
Jamie Foster, a microbiologist at the University of Florida who conducts the Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions (UMAMI) experiment, said, “Animals, including humans, rely on our microbes to maintain healthy digestive and immune systems. “We don’t fully understand how spaceflight changes these beneficial interactions. The UMAMI experiment uses a glow-in-the-dark bobtail squid to address these important animal health concerns.”
Scientists hope this experiment will help us learn more about the influence of existence outside Earth’s atmosphere on the microbes that live in the human gut and keep us healthy. Since bobtail squids are not born with their microbes, researchers at the ISS will supply them with bioluminescent bacteria and monitor them. Once both missions are completed, the animals are frozen and returned to Earth for further research.
via Smithsonian Magazine