Fruit flies aboard space shuttle subjects of UCF, UC Davis study on immunity and space

Researchers hope to gain insights into how long space trips, such as missions to Mars, would affect astronauts' health

Fruit flies aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery will help University of Central Florida and University of California, Davis, biologists learn more about how prolonged stays in space could affect human immune systems.

The flies will need little care during their 12-day stay aboard the shuttle, which is scheduled to launch Saturday, July 1, from Kennedy Space Center. Astronauts will only have to replace their food tray once.

When the flies return to earth, Laurence "Laurie" von Kalm, an associate professor of biology at UCF, will work with Deborah Kimbrell, a UC Davis associate research geneticist, to evaluate their responses to bacteria and fungi and compare them to the responses of flies that did not go into space.

"The primary question being asked is whether the immune system is compromised from prolonged space travel," von Kalm said. "Are they more susceptible to infection than the flies that don't travel into space?"

NASA provided Kimbrell with a grant to fund the research, and Kennedy Space Center is providing a lab where von Kalm, Kimbrell and their colleagues will test the flies for two weeks after the shuttle returns. Scientists from NASA's Ames Research Center, Rice University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are also part of the research team.

NASA's goal is to find out how extended stays in space, such as a trip to Mars, could affect the health of astronauts, von Kalm said.

Fruit flies can help NASA move closer to that goal because certain aspects of the genetic makeup of their immune systems and humans' are similar. Also, a 12-day stay in space qualifies as prolonged for fruit flies because they only live for about four to six weeks.

Kimbrell sought von Kalm's help because of his experience working with fruit flies and because of UCF's proximity to Cape Canaveral. Four of von Kalm's graduate students and a senior research assistant will join him at Cape Canaveral to conduct the post-landing tests.

Von Kalm, who began teaching at UCF in 1997, focuses most of his research on the effects of steroid hormones on the development of fruit flies. Because of their genetic similarities to humans, the flies provide a good model for understanding how steroids can affect the development of humans, he said.

The flies on the shuttle will travel in 10 small containers, each of which is about the size of a computer zip disk. Two separate groups of flies will be kept in a Kennedy Space Center research lab during the mission.

To help researchers rule out variables aside from gravity that could affect the flies, one group will be subjected to the same temperatures and vibrations experienced during space flight. The other group will be kept in normal room conditions.

The shuttle also will carry a small amount of a fungus known as "Beauveria bassiana," an approved organic pesticide that is not harmful to humans. Kimbrell, von Kalm and their colleagues will examine whether the reduced gravity makes the fungus more potent.

Flies will be exposed to fungi from the shuttle and fungi kept in a lab, a move that will help determine if various effects are results of the flies' weakened immune systems or the fungi becoming more virulent in space.

The future direction of Kimbrell's and von Kalm's research will depend on the results of the upcoming experiment and the level of cutbacks in funding for NASA's life sciences research.

The shuttle launch will be the second NASA mission in the last two months with ties to UCF research.

UCF optics professor James Harvey and two graduate students designed the Solar X-ray Imager on board the GOES-N satellite that was launched in May. The new X-ray telescope will help to improve the monitoring of weather activity such as hurricanes. It also will aid in monitoring and predicting space weather, which can disrupt cell phones, cause blackouts, interrupt airline traffic and damage or destroy instruments on multimillion-dollar satellites.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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