Author: Adriana Bos-Mikich PhD
Department of Morphological Sciences, ICBS, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
The last few decades have seen remarkable progress in our ability to safely launch manned craft into the black abyss of space, boosted in recent years by the growing involvement of commercial space enterprise, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. With it has come a rising desire to work towards the establishment of longer-term human settlements in orbiting space stations and on the Moon and Mars. Recent experiments, although methodologically limited, have demonstrated that frozen human sperm samples are not affected by the microgravity conditions encountered in spaceflight, which is an important and positive finding.
However, life in space is not confronted by microgravity alone, but is also faced with high radiation levels, which may well represent a relevant source of concern when dealing with human reproduction beyond Earth. Cryopreserved sperm and oocyte samples stored in outer space under these two hostile conditions must survive and maintain viability long enough to generate viable embryos, if they are eventually to result in healthy babies born aboard space stations. The putative effects of long-term storage of human gametes and embryos under Earth atmospheric conditions have already been investigated. Data from early clinical and experimental studies have shown that background radiation has no deleterious impact on babies created after long-term storage of frozen human embryos and oocytes. Therefore, the next steps should involve similar experiments taking place under the conditions of being in an outer space environment, where radiation levels are far higher than on Earth, before considering the generation of embryos using cryopreserved gametes stored on space stations.
Nonetheless, the risks of reduced viability due to radiation levels and microgravity are not the only concerns related to the cryostorage and shipment of human gametes. There are other risks associated with the cryostorage of biological material, both on Earth and in Space, ranging from the transmission of diseases between samples stored in liquid nitrogen, to unintentional loss due accidental warming. The loss of oocytes and embryos due to major equipment failure has been reported in fertility clinics, with thousands of gametes and embryos being lost worldwide. As reported by assisted reproduction specialist Dr Mina Alikani in 2018, the maintenance of a very low temperature and avoidance of temperature fluctuations are key factors for the safe and long-term cryostorage of human cells and tissues. Additionally, the shipment and handling of cryopreserved biological samples represents another potential hazard for gametes and embryos. Results of research by Casey McDonald and colleagues in 2011, using donated human oocytes, warned of the effects of the ‘inherent perils of shipping’ on the lowering of survival rates, with exposure to elevated ambient temperature and air pressure, vibration or any other physical shock potentially contributing to poorer results.
Therefore, for the successful transport of biological samples under cryostorage, it is essential that appropriate shipping vessels be used, such as those allowing continuous temperature monitoring, rather than relying on data collected at the final destination.
Big question marks remain as to whether healthy babies can be born following the use of in vitro fertilization technologies performed in outer space. Furthermore, major safety and ethical concerns must be taken into consideration before such a giant leap for humanity is taken.
See also article: Assisted reproduction frontiers in outer space
Nelson A. Campos Vinagre
Commercial pilot / Professor of Sports Science
Sporting activities for athletes with disability have existed for more than a 100 years. Relevant contributions to this area of knowledge occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries that demonstrated the importance of sports participation in the rehabilitation and re-education process of people with special needs. Cutting-edge research has targeted methods that can reduce the consequences of living with reduced mobility and, at the same time, provide new ideas and possibilities for engaging in sporting activities as a means of treatment and rehabilitation. This has led in recent decades to greater opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in sports, and the prospect of further moves for inclusion in the coming years should continue to help improve their quality of life.
The mobility provided by assistive technologies is known to contribute positively to the medical and psychological needs and treatment of casualties of armed conflict and has provided them with opportunities to overcome the life-changing injuries they have endured, both the physical and mental challenges. The Invictus Games, championed by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, which first took place in London UK in 2014, is an excellent example of how the power of sporting inclusion can inspire wounded and sick service personnel in their rehabilitation, providing an arena to not only motivate them in their personal journeys to recovery but also to generate a wider understanding and respect from the general public for those who serve their country.
Equally, the showcase events of the Summer and Winter Paralympics, through being linked and following on from the traditional Olympic games for non-handicapped athletes, fosters greater equality for the disabled, putting them on the same global platform and helping change the way disability is perceived. More than 4,400 athletes with disability are expected to compete in the Summer Paralympics to be held in Tokyo in August 2020. The rising number of people with disabilities, covering all age groups, is made more evident through witnessing the larger numbers of these individuals taking part in physical and sporting activities. Their participation in sports as a means of improving health, quality of life and social interaction is an area of interest that I have followed over the many years of my career and it gave direction to my PhD research.
My doctoral thesis intended to improve understanding of the process of evaluating people with physical incapacities in the same way as people considered non-handicapped. It involved submitting the German athletes from the Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team to a standard physiological test on a treadmill and to an evaluation process performed in a wind tunnel, a device normally used to test aerodynamic profiles. It was a fascinating project as the relationship between the needs of those people being studied and the evaluation instrument used was not obvious, but we aimed to better observe broader and more accurate responses related to the physical and aerodynamics performance of the skiers involved, which it is hoped can benefit not only the ski team members, but also non-athletes who may or may not practice this sport.
The biomechanical aspects related to posture, motor learning and motor development of people with disability were also considered, as they may perform sports as a way of preventing major health risk implications or may desire to practice sports as a rehabilitative process to improve motor skills.
The motivation behind my thesis was also based on the possibility of conducting research that allowed the use and unification of different areas of expertise. The physiological investigation of disabled athletes, combining with testing them with aerodynamic loads in a wind tunnel could bring advances related to quality of life and the specific training and health of people with disabilities. A further important motivating factor was the idea of promoting the social inclusion of people with special needs through the organisation and interpretation of the scientific information obtained in this research, and applying the findings to scenarios of daily life and not just for elite athletes.
The efforts towards inclusion of individuals with special needs are helped with the advances in assistive technologies, such as exoskeletons to help people stand and walk, and numerous smartphone apps to help the visually impaired and deaf. Many countries have legislated to ensure that discrimination due to disability is avoided in the employment market. Therefore, with talk of ‘hotels’ in space and craft similar to the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform (Gateway) in the near future, should people with disability be considered for space travel and work where they are not pinned down by gravity? In fact, the answer is another question – why not? Stephen Hawking experienced microgravity during a parabolic flight, and seemed to safely enjoy floating in the air. However, studies are needed to respond to questions like these, but if they are never asked, they will never be answered.
Adam J Crellin
Graduate Medical Student, Oxford University; Analog Astronaut, Austrian Space Forum
While attending the 2019 European Mars Conference in London this week at the Institute of Physics, we had the pleasure of witnessing the graduation ceremony of the next cohort of newly qualified Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) analog astronauts, who will take part in next years' AMADEE20 Mars analog mission in Israel. Analog astronauts are people who have been trained to test equipment and conduct activities under simulated space conditions, and they play an important role in preparing for future Moon and Mars missions. We liked so much the graduation speech given by analog astronaut Adam Crellin that we asked if we could publish it here on the InnovaSpace website to inspire all the young would-be astronauts out there - dream big!
"I would like to open by saying not only how much of an honour it is to speak on behalf of my classmates and the Austrian Space Forum today, but also to stand in front of you all as a newly qualified analog astronaut. I am especially proud to be speaking at a European-wide conference in the UK, organised by the recently reformed Mars Society UK.
In classrooms across the UK, and even the world, children are being asked by their primary school teachers, the existential question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. Some of these children, fascinated by space, will say they want to be an astronaut. Children often continue this hope as they grow older, perhaps keeping it a bit quieter, guarding it a bit more closely. Later, they then discover that there are a huge range of diverse opportunities in space, and that astronauts are one small cog in a large machine. A machine that contains astronauts who plant flags; plant experts who grow astrocrops; astronomers who study the universe and its laws; lawyers who write legislation through careful engineering; engineers who build spacecraft that rock; and, well, for those who like rocks, there is geology as well as countless other professions."
"As we prepare for a renewed age of crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit, to fill the steps of the Apollo astronauts, and extend those tracks further than have ever been achieved before, we are reminded of the importance of analog missions. In the same way famous twentieth-century polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, spent years experimenting, refining, and proving equipment and procedures suitable for a South Pole expedition, we too are preparing for a Mars expedition. And equally so, preparedness will be key to success. For theory and strictly controlled laboratory research, can only partially answer some of the questions about what to expect, and how to work on Mars. Analog research missions, including those of the Austrian Space Forum, help to provide further answers.
To be an analog astronaut, is to be a unique cog in our space industry machine. A cog whose sporks interlink with many different cogs, working across disciplines with research groups throughout Europe. A well-oiled cog, remaining fit and healthy in preparedness for any challenge which may arise. And a cog which turns equally well with many cogs, both the rusted expert cogs, and the shiny new ones, who we seek to inspire the next generation of Mars pioneers; perhaps the most important task we all have. But despite these unique qualities, we remember that we are still a small cog and that it is our collective effort, turning together, which will one day lead us to Mars. To be part of this small community with big dreams, is the greatest honour of any analog astronaut."
Adam J Crellin, 4th November 2019
Dr Karina Oliani
ER Doctor, mountaineer & adventurer
My name is Karina Oliani, and I'm a doctor specializing in Emergency Medicine and Rescue in Remote Areas. Outdoor challenges have always been my passion, and because of this, I've participated in countless expeditions at sea, up mountains, in jungles and in the desert, including climbing Everest 2 times - by the South face in 2013 and North face in 2017. I also love diving and have dived in all the oceans with the biggest predators.
In parallel, I am a producer of audio-visual content and have already produced work for the Globo programs "Fantástico" and "Esporte Espetacular" in Brazil, and I have worked as a presenter and guide for the reality shows "Celebrities' Challenge" and "Extreme Mission" on the Discovery Channel.
For more than four years I have been trying to realize my dream of climbing K2, which is considered to be the most difficult and dangerous mountain to climb on Earth. The first year I couldn't do it because of work commitments, the next year through a lack of sponsorship, and then once again it was not possible as I became very ill after being bitten by a tick. But when you have had a desire for such a long time, you don't give up easily!
The expedition to K2 wasn't easy for me, either physically or mentally. As already mentioned, for most of 2018 I was battling the tick-borne Lyme disease, which is transmitted by the bite of a tick infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and for which I still have to take medications. As it turned out though, I hardly felt the effects of the disease during the climb, probably because of the decreasing oxygen levels during the ascent - I think perhaps the Borrelia didn't like the lack of oxygen!
K2 is a truly beautiful mountain, very impressive, and one that I was always drawn to, maybe because it represents every challenge a climber expects and more. It is situated in the Karakoram mountain range, which is an extension of the Himalayan mountains, and it sits on the borders between Pakistan and China. K2 has been dubbed “The Wild Mountain,” and one in five of the climbers who have attempted to reach its summit have died.
K2 is located in a place so remote and inaccessible that it was only discovered by scientific mapping in 1904, and was only climbed for the first time 50 years later, by an Italian team. In 2000, Waldemar Niclevicz became the first and only Brazilian to have ever reached the summit of K2, and subsequently, I became only the 2nd Brazilian and the 1st Brazilian woman to successfully reach the top.
In all the expedition took a total of 50 days. We first made our way to a local community called Askole, home to just 200 inhabitants and a place that can only be reached using 4x4 vehicles. Then came eight days of trekking through Pakistani villages and completely inhospitable regions to reach the base camp. This involved walking 120 kilometers along an extremely complex trail of ice, snow, glacial sediment, rocks, small deserts and rivers. K2 is definitely not the type of place where you get tired and decide to go home!
We then began the 1st cycle of acclimatization, followed by 4-5 days rest. Acclimatization is extremely important for the body to begin to adapt to the high altitude and prevent more serious side effects. At this time you are submitting your body to a low oxygen environment, and so, your bone marrow understands that it needs to produce more red blood cells to carry the little oxygen that is available.
K2 is not a place for beginners and it is the mind that works the hardest in this situation. In high altitude mountains, 20% of success is physical, and the rest is psychological. In mountains like K2, you deal with a high risk of death, little communication and not much to do, and this can seriously affect your mind.
Consequently, my climbing partner Maximo Kausch and I tried to look upon the expedition with a positive vibe, and without placing pressure on ourselves. Obviously we had concerns, but we tried to do everything calmly, waiting to see what would happen... if we made it - great! If not, that was fine too... We knew the expedition was much more than just the summit. We passed through beautiful landscapes, and saw completely unknown mountains, and this is worth a lot.
We set off for out attempt on the summit at dawn on the 17th July, accompanied by 118 other climbers. But as we were nearing the top on this same day, an avalanche swept down the mountain, injuring a Sherpa and sweeping away two of the fixed ropes needed to continue the rest of the ascent. The mission had to be aborted and everyone returned to base camp. The avalanche meant that of the 120 climbers who would have attempted the summit this season, only 18 decided to continue on with the mission.
After this first attempt to reach the summit, I began to feel that my lungs were feeling a bit wet, namely, the beginning of pulmonary edema, which is common at such extreme altitudes. In mountain medicine, the first medicines to use in this case are Nifedipine, and then Viagra, as they help the vessels in the lungs to relax, preventing the contraction caused by the lack of oxygen and as a consequence, pulmonary hypertension.
Despite feeling exhausted, just 2 days after reaching the base camp we decided to attempt to reach the summit again in another time window that emerged. After all, it could be the last opportunity, as in general, K2 does not give many chances to reach the top in a season.
Persistence, in this case, was the key to our success, and on the 25th of August, exactly one month since our arrival at the mountain, we succeeded in reaching the summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, at an altitude of 8,611 meters. As with nearly everything in life, reaching the end goal involves a series of events leading up to it, and our expedition was filled with stories, things learnt and adventures, and above all, the sweet sensation of having fulfilled another dream!
I have to thank wholeheartedly the sponsors of my K2 expedition - Volvo Cars, Pulsar Invest, John John, Outback Steakhouse, and Gillette Venus. And support from Canon, GoPro HERO7, Spot, Puma and The North Face. I am eternally grateful to them for believing in this dream and in my potential.
MSc Space Physiology & Health; Human Performance Intern, McLaren Applied Technologies
With international space agencies and the real-life Tony Stark (Elon Musk) making huge advances in rocket technology, it is likely that within the next couple of decades humankind will touch down on Mars. However, this is only half the battle. The gravity on Mars is roughly one third as strong as Earth’s. You may be thinking “great, everything will require less effort”, and you’d be right, however, there is a huge caveat to that. As we’ve found from the results of time spent in space (the longest continuous period being 14.4 months), when people are exposed to levels of gravity lower than that on Earth, losses in muscle and bone occur; predominantly, in muscles which we continually use to walk and maintain our posture. You may have heard the expression ‘use it or lose it’ - hugely applicable here. These losses can increase astronauts’ risk of injury when returning to Earth by leaving them very weak and fragile. A return mission to Mars will take around 3 YEARS to complete, mainly because of the wait for the two planets to be close enough in proximity again to allow a relatively short journey home. That’s around 12 months in microgravity and around 26 months in Martian gravity. Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, based on the numbers, the outlook for muscle retention isn’t great. That being said, we‘re still pretty uninformed about the extent to which living on Mars will stimulate our muscles.
Recently, my colleagues and I conducted an investigation to try to shed some light on the matter. To do this properly, we needed to achieve two key things: 1) simulate walking in Mars gravity, 2) measure the activity in the muscles used for walking. With this, we compared the muscle activity produced while walking on Mars to that produced when walking on Earth, gauging the degree of muscle loss that we might expect for a mission to Mars and to inform countermeasures.
To simulate Mars gravity, we used a technique called lower body positive pressure (LBPP). There are a few different ways in which you can simulate partial gravity environments, but this one has fewer limitations than the rest. LBPP involves putting someone inside an air-tight inflatable box from the waist down. Through manipulation of the air pressure within, it can generate a lifting force, changing the weight of the person inside. Our device was designed and built by engineers at the John Ernsting Aerospace Physiology Laboratory at the Pontificia Universidade do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. With a treadmill placed underneath, the participant could then walk in simulated Mars gravity. To measure the amount of activity inside the leg muscles, we then attached electrodes to the skin at each of the muscles we were interested in (a method called electromyography) which picked up an electrical signal that muscles give off when they are being worked. The more intense the signal, the more active that muscle is while walking.
What we found was quite unexpected. The results of our investigation suggested that there was no significant difference between the muscle activity observed while walking in Mars gravity and the muscle activity observed walking on Earth. If this were to be true, then it would not be foolish to think that we could use the 26 months on the Martian surface to reverse losses in muscle and bone suffered on the outward journey in preparation for the return trip. However, there were two important variables that we failed to account for in our experiment. These variables were stride length and stride frequency when walking.
The moon is smaller than Mars, and so there is even less gravity there, but the same principle applies. With this in mind, even if the results of our experiment were to be true and the walking muscles are getting just as much activity with each step on Mars as they are on Earth, theoretically, they will be used less often. Considering our ‘use it or lose it’ principle, this would still mean muscle and bone loss to a disabling degree in the absence of effective counter strategies; which are currently lacking. More studies need to be done around this area, accounting for all variables, to further our understanding of human performance on Mars and ensure the safety of our astronauts, or we’ll be keeping Elon Musk waiting at the launch pad!
Dr Andrew Winnard
Lecturer in Clinical/Musculoskeletal Biomechanics; Lead for the Aerospace Medicine Systematic Review Group; Chartered Physiotherapist; Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Northumbria University
This was a question that the European Astronaut Centre space medicine office asked the Aerospace Medicine Systematic Review Group (AMSRG). With space agencies planning missions beyond low Earth orbit, in spacecraft that might not be as easy to exercise inside as the International Space Station, this question is becoming more relevant. While it is clear that countermeasures are needed to maintain muscle during microgravity exposure, there were questions such as ‘should we really be going to the Moon without exercising?’; ‘can we safely have pauses in countermeasures during Earth-Mars transits?’; and ultimately ‘how long can humans go in microgravity, without exercising, before the muscles seriously decondition?’.
There appeared to be some information available in the research base but no clear and transparent synthesis existed on which to make evidence based medical decisions. The AMSRG, led by Prof Nick Caplan, Dr Rochelle Velho and myself, based at Northumbria University’s Aerospace Medicine and Rehabilitation Laboratory, is all about working with spaceflight operations to provide high quality, evidence based medical guidance and, therefore, we took these questions on readily. It was determined that if data from inactive/no intervention control groups within any study done with astronauts or bed rest participants could be extracted, it would provide the evidence based information on which to inform the questions being asked. The team worked for almost two years, screening 754 potential studies, before extracting data from control groups of 75 individual included sources, to calculate 922 individual effect sizes, making this the largest review the AMSRG has conducted to date. All the included studies were from bed rest, ranging from 60-120 days, with mostly high risk of bias (using Cochrane’s risk of bias tool) and typically scoring 4 out of 8 for bed rest quality (using AMSRG’s bed rest quality tool). Across all the studies the team found that moderate deconditioning effects (effect size ≥0.6) occur between 7-15 days, with large deconditioning effects (effect size ≥1.2) occurring by 28 days.
Based on this, it seems that a 5 day Earth-Lunar transit period is probably safe to complete without exercise, at least for the skeletal muscle outcomes. However a Mars transit, that is likely to be 200+days, needs to counteract muscle deconditioning if the crew is to arrive and be able to function in a gravity loaded environment. Additional consideration was given to ‘worst case scenarios’, such as if there were a crew member more susceptible to low gravity induced muscle changes, for which the team used the most extreme negative end of the confidence intervals as a model. In these cases, a large deconditioning effect could be reached by 7 days and then even the travel time to the Moon could potentially become problematic. However, this model is rather crude due to large confidence intervals caused by the typical low sample sizes in human spaceflight research, and individual effects are difficult to determine in a way that is easily transferable to astronauts. Over the whole evidence base, there was great variety in outcome measures and time points evaluated across studies, along with limited data for all outcome measure subgroups, with research gaps highlighted in the published review’s results tables. No patient reported outcome measures of minimal clinical worthwhile changes were established that would help provide a more patient-centred approach to space medicine. This has been a common finding in AMSRG reviews. While space agencies require astronaut simulating bed rest studies to be done to set standards, it might be useful to try and establish a list of core outcome measures that would benefit human spaceflight operations, to become a foundation for patient-centred space medicine and to standardise the data presented to the field as a whole.
Dr Joaquim Ignácio S da Mota Neto / Dr Thais Russomano
Psychiatrist, Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil / Founder & Scientific Director, InnovaSpace
The brain is the prime and most complex organ of the human body and within it takes place the sophisticated phenomena that define us as human beings, enabling recognition of and interaction with our surroundings. Basic and primitive survival functions pass through the different formations and axes of the Central and Peripheral Nervous System, but far beyond this are the many other functions that differ in complexity and high degree of neural connectivity, such as those performed by the limbic system, containing the hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala.
These important structures are responsible for integrating and giving context to aspects of emotions, memories and learning, thus building our cognitive capacities. Therefore, it is essential to maintain the functionality of these cerebral regions that permit the acquisition, storage and recall of information, as together with the cerebral cortex, they are fundamental for several aspects of personal, social and professional performance.
The perception of potential fragility of these intricate brain structures is inevitable, when faced with extreme and unknown situations, such as one might encounter on a manned trip to Mars. The effects of different space features, such as radiation or microgravity, may pose a threat not only to the ability of an astronaut to perform both simple and complex tasks, but also to control emotions or react in an adequate manner to a new environment in which access to old memories may become essential.
A recently published article by Mike Wall of Space.com presented the issue of space radiation and how it can affect the brain function and psychological behaviour of animals, in research using a new scientific approach. The study conducted by Munjal Acharya & Janet Baulch of the University of California and Peter Klein of Stanford University, exposed mice for the first time to a continuous and chronic low-dosage radiation (1mGy/day). The idea of the research team was to mimic a manned trip to Mars, during which astronauts would be exposed to 6 months of low-dosage, deep-space radiation. This type of protocol differs from those previously used, in which animals were submitted to high-dosage radiation over short time periods.
The space environment is very unique and is full of radiation in the form of galactic cosmic rays, particles of high energy and charge, and solar particle events, which differ from the low-LET (X- or g-rays) radiation that is predominant on Earth. Radiation is known to affect humans in several ways, in three distinct phases: acute, latent and chronic effects. Chemical mediators are first released from damaged cells, particularly from bone marrow, lymphoid tissues and the gastrointestinal tract, leading to symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and malaise. The latent phase is free of symptoms as it represents the time between the initial cell injury and manifestation of cell renewal. Chronic effects include a decrease in cell count, and increase in the risk of developing cancer, and degenerative and infectious diseases.
The negative impact of radiation on the Central Nervous System (CNS) has been considered relatively minor, as the CNS is formed of few actively dividing cells, which provides it with a type of natural resistance. Nonetheless, some studies have demonstrated that space radiation could potentially produce undesirable effects on the brain, including a decrease in function and neurodegeneration.
The results from the mice study would seem to corroborate the hypothesis that radiation can indeed cause deleterious effects on the CNS, perhaps due to the longer 6-month period of exposure to the low-dose radiation. These findings, published in the Society for Neuroscience's open-access journal, eNeuro, suggest that mice exposed to radiation had alterations in their hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and the prefrontal lobe of the cortex, dedicated to cognitive functions and social relationships. The neurological pathway has yet to be defined, but it is already of serious concern to the space scientific community, as such alterations could cause impairment in psychological performance, especially during stressful and critical situations, like those that could easily be experienced during an interplanetary trip, which is exactly the occasion when clear and immediate decision-making or problem-solving responses are needed!
Under normal conditions on Earth, the human cognitive and emotional processes can struggle to perform well enough to cope with the demands of everyday life, and therefore, the subjective and objective adversities of adapting to a long-duration trip to another planet could be a huge challenge. Even if we are able to control each one of the many physical or psychological variables that could impact on our relationship with the space environment, aerospace science still needs to deal with poorly understood aspects related to the interaction of executive memory with emotions, with experts having highlighted that what we remember is never the same as what was originally set to be fixed in our memory - the material undergoes change in the storage process as each individual adds personal characteristics to the stored element.
The peculiarities of the human brain and its crossovers between the acts of feeling, thinking, planning and performing have already led humanity to evolve, overcoming innumerous obstacles from the Stone Age to the Modern Era. However, even in a place with no palpable barriers, like the vastness of space, there will be invisible elements, such as radiation, that could be powerful enough to delay or impede human omnipotence and omnipresence in the exploration of the Universe.
Dr. Gabriela S. Pilo
Oceanographer, Institute for Marine & Antarctic Studies (University of Tasmania, Australia)
It is quite easy to draw a parallel between ocean and space exploration. Both require a ship, a large sense of adventure, and a love of discovery. But there are more similarities between the ocean and space than simply their ability to feed the imagination of writers, musicians, and curious minds.
The ocean, like space, is still unknown. Similarly to space research, ocean researchers are still trying to fill several knowledge gaps. We’ve advanced a lot since the beginning of modern Oceanography, attributed to the Challenger Expedition in 1872. We have now charted the main ocean currents, from the surface down to the bottom of the ocean, at 6000 m depths. We understand how and where surface waters become dense and sink, creating a conveyor belt that connects the whole planet, travelling for 1000 years before re-surfacing. We also understand that ocean currents interact with the wind, the ocean floor, and with each other, and break into several rotating bodies of water, known as ocean eddies. These eddies spin away, carrying their parent current’s water to distant parts of the ocean. However, as in space, there is still a lot we don’t know. Gaps in ocean research relate to balances of energy and of biogeochemical compounds, and to the response of the ocean to a changing climate.
Considering that there still so much to learn, we often find ourselves in the middle of the ocean looking for answers. This brings up the second similarity between ocean and space research: when you are out there, conditions can get harsh! Open-ocean Oceanographic cruises can last for up to 3 months, having only a few shore stops during this time. Therefore, like in space, an oceanographic vessel must be autonomous for a long period of time. During research cruises, scientists and crew members are putting all their efforts into sampling the water and measuring physical properties of the ocean. Sampling happens under all circumstances, in the middle of the night, in rain, snow, and under very high wave conditions. In addition, icebreaker vessels can go deep into an ice field, and reach the most remote parts of the world. Ocean-sickness, just like space-sickness, often kicks in, as your body gets used to the constant movement. You are also living in a confined space with like-minded people that have one goal: to do science.
But the ocean is not just a large body of water, flowing and crashing against the shore. The bathymetry of the ocean, the chemical elements dissolved in the water, and the animals, microbes, and algae that live in it, are equally important and fascinating. Oceanography is a highly multidisciplinary research field. Therefore, to fully understand the ocean, we need to collaborate. It takes a team of physical oceanographers, marine biologists, geologists, meteorologists, glaciologists, and several other scientists to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This team work builds up our knowledge of the ocean. Just like in the space sciences, collaboration is key! For example, the InnovaSpace Team is composed of experts in life science, telehealth, and engineering.
Finally, the ocean, like space, is vast. We cannot be everywhere, at all times to study it. To obtain global, constant measurements of the ocean we rely on state-of-the-art sensors, similarly to space research. The sensors to measure the ocean are either aboard a series of artificial satellites orbiting the Earth, or in instruments placed in the water. Sensors onboard satellites can measure the sea surface temperature, salinity, and sea surface height. In the water, sensors are aboard floats, mooring arrays, automated underwater vehicles, remotely operated vehicles, gliders, and seals (!). Operational oceanography is a fascinating field of research, and at its heart sits the Argo array, composed of 4000 Argo floats measuring temperature and salinity of the top 2000 m of the ocean since 2005. This array has helped oceanographers to answer important questions on ocean circulation and climate change.
Ultimately, the ocean - just like the space - brings fascination. The excitement of discovery is present both when exploring a deep canyon or a distant quasar. In the end, the ocean is also a final frontier. A frontier, however, closer to home!
Department of Morphological Sciences, ICBS, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Amazing as it may seem, as the number of spaceflights has increased and life aboard space stations has become a reality, the effects of high levels of space radiation and microgravity (micro-G) on mammalian reproduction are still largely unknown. Therefore, the study of reproduction in space is a very important subject for the future of space missions. Research conducted with experimental non-mammal animals, such as sea urchins, fish, amphibians, and birds has concluded that micro-G does not prevent animal reproduction. However, mammalian reproduction presents specific features, such as ovulation, sperm and oocyte (egg) transit in the reproductive tract, embryo attachment, implantation and placentation, which are specific to mammalian reproduction and cannot be studied in non-mammal species. Surprisingly, little information is available today on how these processes occur in conditions of microgravity.
A first problem requiring investigation is the supposed difficulty that sperm and egg cells may have to travel along the female reproductive tract to accomplish natural fertilization under micro-G conditions. A project with 100% relevance is NASA’s Micro-11 research, which aims to examine putative motility alterations in human and bull sperm during spaceflight. “Micro-11 provides fundamental data indicating whether successful human reproduction beyond Earth is possible, and whether countermeasures are needed to protect sperm function in space” (NASA). Rapid directional sperm motility is a key factor for successful fertilisation under natural circumstances. Sperm cells need to swim up the uterine cervix, travel through the uterine cavity and fallopian tubes to meet and fertilise the oocyte. To accomplish all these tasks, human sperm respond to chemoattractant signals, to temperature gradient, and to fluid flow. These guidance mechanisms occur naturally along the female reproductive tract and are important for the sperm-egg encounter and for natural fertilisation to occur in the fallopian tubes, but will these mechanisms be sufficient in micro-G?
Experimental studies with mice have revealed impaired male germ cell generation under microgravity conditions. Of concern are alterations seen in the physiology of testicular cells observed under conditions of simulated microgravity, which may obscure the starting point of mechanisms that lead to long-lasting tumorigenic processes. However, a recent research has shown that the deleterious effects of microgravity on germ cell proliferation, oxidative metabolism and autophagy may be, at least partially, prevented by the presence of antioxidants in the germ cell culture medium. This finding represents an important contribution to the current knowledge of microgravity effects on germ cell tumour metabolism and development.
According to estimates, nearly one in six couples worldwide seek out assisted reproduction technologies for having a child. Thus, it is expected that fertility assistance may also be necessary in space due to naturally occurring fertility problems or due to micro-G induced infertility conditions. A report from the 35th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology recently revealed that frozen human sperm retain their viability and fertilising capacity in outer space, similar to sperm samples stored in liquid nitrogen under Earth’s gravity conditions. This represents a reassuring finding, particularly when considering the importance of sperm cryostorage for fertility preservation, such as in the case of cancer patients who may lose their reproductive potential due to oncological treatments. It also allows us to hypothesise that donor intra-uterine insemination may represent a viable option for having a child under the micro-G conditions found in space stations.
The more complex assisted reproduction technology (ART), “in vitro fertilisation” (IVF), developed by Sir Robert Edwards and Dr. Patrick Steptoe, allows fertilisation to occur outside of the body, i.e., outside its natural tubal environment, in a plastic petri dish, giving rise to the term “test-tube” baby. Its main purpose is to promote fertilisation when the natural encounter of sperm and oocyte is not possible, as is the case of women presenting blocked uterine horns. In summary, oocytes are first collected from the ovaries, (performed by transvaginal ovarian puncture and aspiration) and placed in a petri “IVF” dish containing a culture medium that mimics the tubal micro-environment. The male partner produces a sperm sample, which is prepared for mixing with the oocytes, after which the IVF dish is maintained in a warm incubator (37oC) in a laboratory for fertilisation to take place. The sperm must be able to swim and penetrate the oocyte membrane for fertilisation to be accomplished, and to assist this they are placed close together to facilitate their interaction and fusion.
The resulting embryos remain in the incubator for up to six or seven days, before being transferred to the womb. However, fertilisation will not occur under natural or even IVF conditions when the ejaculated sperm do not present rapid directional motility in a condition called asthenospermia, a common cause of unsuccessful reproduction among infertile couples. To help these individuals generate their own descendants, the ART “intracytoplasmic sperm injection” (ICSI) technique was developed by Dr. Gianpietro Palermo. ICSI allows fertilisation to occur even when the sperm sample is poor in terms of number and/or motility.
The technique uses a micromanipulation station fitted to an inverted microscope equipped with contrast optics that enable three-dimensional visualisation of living cells. The ICSI micromanipulation equipment consists of two glass pipettes; a holding pipette to fix the oocyte and an injection pipette to introduce the sperm into the oocyte cytoplasm (see below video). The ICSI insemination strategy allows fertilisation to occur even under unfavourable conditions, and it can perhaps be hypothesised that this technology may be of assistance in the case of sperm motility deficiencies in outer space, where micro-G conditions may prevent natural, unassisted sperm-egg fusion.
Undoubtedly, much more research needs to be performed before we can erase the large question marks that remain as to the likelihood of natural fertilisation taking place in mammals under micro-G conditions, and if required, how effective current assisted reproduction technology would be when using the ART setup and equipment developed on Earth. With talk of future Moon and Mars colonisation and space hotels in the coming decades, there will come a time when human reproduction under microgravity conditions will need to be better addressed if life is to be sustained in off-Earth environments.
Life in research and academia is often busy, with commitments to attend conferences to disseminate your work, learn of what other research is being conducted in your field of interest, and to build a network of like-minded people linked by common themes. InnovaSpace’s Scientific and Strategic Consultant Roberto Fanganiello is no exception to this way of life and travels frequently around the globe, with last week seeing him in Canada attending the 7th International Symposium on Surfaces and Interfaces for Biomaterials (ISSIB, 22-25 July 2019), held at the Quebec City Convention Centre, in Quebec.
His time was well filled with activities over three of the conference days; giving a talk at a tutorial session on the innovative strategies used to design surfaces and interfaces for biosensors, as well as on surface modifications of biomaterials to make them optimal for association with different types of cells; giving a keynote talk at the main conference, on surface modifications of titanium implants to improve bone tissue formation and regeneration; and chairing a session on Future Trends in material and biomaterial sciences.
Surfaces and interfaces in biomaterials are topics of key significance in the fields of biomaterials and tissue engineering, and form a strong scientific platform for technological innovation and economic growth worldwide. Many novel ideas and concepts were shared at this year’s ISSIB Symposium, together with an exchange of information regarding the use of emerging technologies and fundamental advances in biomaterial surfaces and interfaces.
Plans are already afoot for the next edition of the ISSIB Symposium, scheduled to take place in Australia in 2021, and Roberto, among others, is eager to see just how much these technologies will have progressed by then!