Fancy a trip to Mars? Maybe even further a field? To boldly go were no man has gone before.
Many of us have dreams of space travel and some futurologist have suggested we humans may need to move off our climate crippled Earth in the future in order to maintain our species survival.
Ignoring the fact that intergalactic space travel is technological impossible at present, how long term space travel may effect us is unknown. Could we cope for decades in a weightless environment? What if the journey to Alpha Centauri takes 200 years? Could we breed in space? What about our children? How would space affect their development?
These questions may seem a bit way out there, but recent research suggests that weightlessness may cause animals significant developmental problems. Last week, at the Society for Integrated Biology, it was reported that zebrafish embryos raised in microgravity (i.e. weightlessness) develop cranial defects.
Researchers placed zebrafish embryos (eggs) in bioreactors which rapidly spin in order to mimic weightlessness. Spinning began 10 to 14 hours after fertilisation, a key time point in the development of cranial neural crest cells, and stopped 12 to 96 hours later. The eggs were then left to develop normally.
Once hatched, examination of the cranium of the spun zebrafish was markedly different than those not spun. The branchial arches, cartilage that supports the gills and corresponds to parts of the human jaw, were altered. Adult fish grew to be abnormal, with bones at the base of their skulls being buckled.
This story isn’t new. Last year scientist found that space travelling female mice, who had been part of NASA’s STS-131 mission, had shrunken ovaries, dying ovarian follicles, and down-regulated oestrogen genes. Their reproductive systems had essentially shut down.
Exactly why gravity is so important in development and reproduction is unknown. However, we didn’t evolve in space and therefore it seems unlikely that long space voyages are going to be good for our health.