Exploring the effects of spaceflight on human physiology: insights from RNA sequencing

Credit: Inspiration4 crew

The era of civilian spaceflight is upon us, bringing with it exciting opportunities and new challenges. One of these challenges is understanding how spaceflight affects human health at a molecular and cellular level. Recent advancements in nanopore-based sequencing technologies are providing scientists with the tools needed to explore these effects in unprecedented detail.

Understanding the Tools: Nanopore and Ultima Sequencing

Nanopore sequencing is a cutting-edge technology that allows researchers to read long strands of RNA directly. This method provides a high-resolution map of RNA molecules, revealing changes in their chemical structure and expression. Ultima high-coverage RNA sequencing complements this by offering a detailed and comprehensive look at the RNA present in cells, ensuring that even the smallest changes can be detected.

The SpaceX Inspiration4 Mission

To study the impact of spaceflight, researchers conducted a detailed analysis of the blood of four SpaceX Inspiration4 astronauts. Samples were taken at seven different timepoints: before the flight, on the day they returned to Earth, and during their recovery post-flight. This longitudinal approach provided a dynamic view of how spaceflight affects the body over time.

Key Findings from the Study

  1. Changes in Erythrocyte Regulation: Erythrocytes, or red blood cells, are crucial for carrying oxygen throughout the body. The study found significant changes in the genetic pathways regulating these cells, suggesting that spaceflight may impact how red blood cells are produced and maintained.
  2. Stress Induction: Spaceflight is a stressful experience, and this study identified changes in genetic pathways related to stress. These findings help us understand how the body responds to the unique stresses of being in space.
  3. Immune System Changes: The immune system is vital for protecting the body against infections. The study revealed alterations in immune function, indicating that spaceflight may affect how the immune system operates.
  4. m6A Methylation Profiles: One of the groundbreaking aspects of this study is the examination of m6A methylation. m6A is a chemical modification of RNA that plays a role in regulating gene expression. The researchers observed a significant spike in m6A levels immediately after the astronauts returned to Earth, highlighting a possible response mechanism to the stresses of spaceflight.

Implications for Future Space Missions

These findings are just the beginning of understanding the complex effects of space travel on human health. The ability to map these changes at such a detailed level opens new avenues for preparing astronauts for the rigors of spaceflight and ensuring their health and safety. By continuing to study these molecular changes, scientists can develop better countermeasures to mitigate the negative effects of space travel.

Conclusion

The research conducted on the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission marks a significant milestone in space medicine. Using advanced RNA sequencing technologies, scientists are gaining deeper insights into how spaceflight affects human physiology. This knowledge is crucial as we continue to explore the final frontier, ensuring that space travelers remain healthy and resilient in the challenging environment of space.

SourceWeill Cornell Medicine

Grigorev K, Nelson TM, Overbey EG, Houerbi N, Kim J, Najjar D, Damle N, Afshin EE, Ryon KA, Thierry-Mieg J, Thierry-Mieg D, Melnick AM, Mateus J, Mason CE. (2024) Direct RNA sequencing of astronaut blood reveals spaceflight-associated m6A increases and hematopoietic transcriptional responses. Nat Commun 15(1):4950. [article]

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