A University of British Columbia researcher is sending samples of yeast and algae into deep space aboard a NASA spacecraft in hopes of identifying the genes that allow organisms to survive there.
Corey Nislow is an expert in gene mutations, pharmaceuticals and has previously sent yeast into space when he collaborated with colleagues from the University of Colorado and NASA. In a series of studies that began 11 years ago, he sent yeast to the International Space Station to study the effects of space radiation and near-zero gravity on organic cells.
Now the yeast and algae will board NASA’s Orion spacecraft in the first of three Artemis missions that will result in a base orbiting the moon. The 98-metre-long spacecraft was due to launch on Monday (29 August), but a fuel leak and engine problems have delayed it until at least Friday.
When Orion launches, it will travel 64,000 kilometers past the moon – 48,000 kilometers further than the distance traveled by Apollo 13 in 1970 – with Nislow’s yeast and algae samples safely tucked away in the crew compartment.
Scientists will send more than 6,000 yeast mutations into space, and Nislow will be able to study his samples after the Artemis I mission is complete, according to UBC. During a 42-day cycle, the algae and yeast will grow for up to seven generations.
The yeast cells’ genetics are similar to human cells, meaning Nislow’s study of how the yeast samples are affected by being in space will support research into better treatments for deep-space explorers and cancer patients taking chemotherapy, Nislow said in a statement.
For the algae, the research team chose to study the single-celled chlamydomonas reinhardtii because it will model how plants are affected by space while doubling as a source of food, oxygen and even hydrogen for fuel, Nislow said.
Initial research suggests that space radiation makes changes to yeast genome sequences — the genetic instructions in a cell — similar to the ways DNA-damaging cancer drugs affect human cells. Nislow hopes the yeast study will help him find out more about this apparent similarity.
The returned samples could provide direction for developing better ways to combat radiation damage in yeast and humans exposed through space or chemotherapy. Being a part of such a historic project is an incredible opportunity, Nislow said in his statement.
“For the first time in 50 years, biological materials will leave low-Earth orbit, contend with exposure to cosmic radiation, and then be returned to our laboratory for detailed molecular analysis.”
Artemis I is like a dress rehearsal for future deep space exploration, ideally setting the stage for historic developments by showing the launch system works and the Orion spacecraft can safely return to Earth. NASA’s goal is to create a base camp on the moon’s south pole that will allow humans to live on the moon for up to two months.
The second Artemis mission will carry a crew, but will not yet land on the moon, according to NASA. Through the third Artemis mission, NASA plans to land the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface, making lunar exploration a key element of the next few years.
In addition to the space biology studies Nislow is a part of, mannequins and small boxes of technologies will be on board. The Lunar IceCube box from Morehead State University, for example, will contain an infrared spectrometer to search for water in all forms.
In a statement Monday, NASA said it hopes to launch Artemis I on Friday, but that it may now be delayed until September.
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