Yeast going for the moon will reveal how radiation affects astronauts

A team of researchers led by the University of Colorado Boulder is sending some unexpected hitchhikers to the moon: Twelve bags of baker's yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), the hardworking cells that cause bread to rise and beer and wine to ferment. A rocket higher than the Statue of Liberty is set to blast off from a launch pad in Florida as early as Friday, delivering NASA's new Orion space capsule into Earth's orbit for the first time. The spaceship, built to ferry four humans, will then undertake a 42-day voyage to the moon and back.

There are no people on board this Artemis 1 expedition. However, this does not rule out the possibility of passengers. Three human mannequins dubbed Moonikin Campos, Helga, and Zohar, as well as four biological experiments created by a team at BioServe Space Technologies, a center in the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences, will sail onboard Orion. The experiment is hidden behind one of the chairs in a shoebox-sized enclosure. Millions of yeast cells inside will assist scientists in answering a fundamental question in space exploration: how would human bodies fare in the severe environment of deep space, where astronauts may be subjected to the equivalent of hundreds of chest X-rays worth of radiation on each voyage?

Nothing like this has happened in 50 years, according to Tobias Niederwieser, a research associate at BioServe and an engineer on the team. The last time humans transported biological material back to the moon was during Apollo 17 in 1972. However, that is only the beginning. NASA's new age of lunar exploration begins with Artemis 1. Later this decade, the space agency intends to send human astronauts, including the first woman, to the moon's surface. BioServe researchers are working hard to keep those moon astronauts safe. Once the yeast cultures have returned to Earth, the researchers will collect the cells to investigate their DNA for signs that might help scientists avoid or treat the consequences of radiation illness in astronauts. The project is led by Luis Zea, a former BioServe researcher who now works for the Colorado-based business Sierra Space. He claims it has changed his perspective on the moon.

Zea stated, "I don't see it the same way." Because I know Orion will soon be orbiting it with the gear and research that we have been working on for four years.

This project, officially known as Deep Space Radiation Genomics (DSRG), has been a long time coming for Zea and his colleagues. BioServe researchers have assisted in the launch of hundreds of biological experiments into space during the last 35 years. The majority of them have gone to the International Space Station (ISS), which is located around 250 miles above Earth.

Orion is a unique type of laboratory. For starters, the spaceship is traveling hundreds of thousands of kilometers further. It will pass through the Van Allen Belts, a pair of doughnut-shaped belts of radiation that surround the planet and protect it from the sun's most harmful rays. And, unlike experiments on the ISS, no astronauts will be there to assist with the operation of DSRG.

According to Niederwieser, the entire experiment is battery-powered. We can't extract any information from it. We can't provide it with a signal that tells it when to start.

Instead, Niederwieser and his colleagues constructed the shoebox-sized laboratory to sense when it is sufficient enough from Earth and then switch itself on. After that, little pumps will fill the yeast bags with nutrient-rich fluid, and the cells will begin to develop and proliferate. The yeast cells themselves are engineering marvels. The BioServe team created over 12,000 mutant yeast strains for the experiment in collaboration with academics at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Some of these species lack certain genes, while others have many copies of the same code.

Researchers from the German Aerospace Center and the Universidad de Valle de Guatemala also helped out. The project involved more than a dozen students, including four from CU Boulder. Which mutants survive the voyage to the moon and which do not might provide scientists with fresh insights into how radiation might impact human astronauts. Zea said that yeast cells may not resemble large primates, but they share over 70% of their DNA with humans. In other words, these cultures will give a window into how specific genes, or systems for mending broken genes, may be crucial for assisting organisms in surviving in the harshness of space.

According to Zea, we may be able to offer future space travelers medicine that boosts the effectiveness of those DNA repair systems. It's similar to an anti-oxidant that can help reduce the effects of radiation.

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