Be ignited! UBC researchers will send yeast into space on a NASA moon rocket

The flight, part of NASA’s Artemis program, aims to advance medical research into how organisms respond to cosmic rays and microgravity

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One small step for man. A giant leap for yeast – and hopefully for humanity too.

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When an unmanned moon rocket lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center next Monday, millions of tiny organisms from the University of British Columbia will be on board.

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Pharmaceutical science researcher Corey Nislow and his team at UBC are among the very few participants in NASA’s space biology program invited to bring samples on board. The payload: custom yeast mutants and green algae.

The organisms will travel on the Orion spacecraft as part of the first moonshot of the Artemis program – which is expected to eventually include manned flights around the moon’s orbit for a wide variety of research purposes and to test the limits of human survival in the world. ‘space. (A total of four Artemis missions are planned in the coming years.)

Nislow’s yeast and algae go up into space primarily for future medical research. Taking organisms well beyond the protection of the Van Allen belts means they will be bombarded by 20 to 50 times the cosmic radiation that we experience on Earth.

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Studying the effects of this bombardment on samples could open the door to new avenues in cancer treatment, since DNA degradation is a by-product of many chemotherapies. Other uses include everything from therapeutic drugs for viruses like monkeypox to radiation countermeasures for future space travelers.

NASA's Orion spacecraft sits atop a mobile launch vehicle at Kennedy Space Center August 17, 2022. The Artemis I program will include biological samples from UBC pharmaceutical science professor Corey Nislow and his team.  The rocket is to be launched on August 29.
NASA’s Orion spacecraft sits atop a mobile launch vehicle at Kennedy Space Center August 17, 2022. The Artemis I program will include biological samples from UBC pharmaceutical science professor Corey Nislow and his team. The rocket is to be launched on August 29. Photo by Joel Kowsky /Nasa

This isn’t the first time Nislow’s carefully selected organisms have traveled to space on a NASA mission – there was yeast studied on the International Space Station in 2011 – but this mission is groundbreaking. because of a simple fact.

“This is the first time in 50 years that we’ve left lower Earth orbit with biological material coming back,” says Nislow, clearly excited about the impending launch.

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Yes, Apollo astronauts went to similar orbits, but those flights were so brief that they weren’t meaningful for measuring the effects of cosmic radiation. These organisms will spend 45 to 50 days in the Moon’s orbit, allowing them to degrade, react and mutate in multiple ways and over seven generations.

Its 6,000 custom yeast and algae samples will essentially fit in two shoeboxes, making it a treasure trove of scientific data in a tiny area. This matters because, as Nislow explains, the space taken up by his samples would barely be enough for a single mouse to travel – assuming the poor thing survived the dangerous journey.

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“What do cosmic rays do to organisms?” is the key question, notes Nislow. And what does the genome do to react to this stress?

Nislow says that only about 10% of experiments in this type of research are done in space. The other 90% is done on Earth, using highly specialized equipment to bombard organisms with elements that mimic cosmic radiation. But there’s no such thing as the real thing.

Artemis I will allow a “real picture” of the effects of space travel on organisms. “And we’ll have a really good record of the weather, what the solar winds were like, the solar flares… It’s a really good test case for what a month in deep space looks like for a living organism.”

The research could even one day help travelers get to Mars safely, so Elon Musk must be pretty excited, too.

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But the most immediate need is to use these yeasts, which are strikingly similar to those of humans in their overall genome, to rapidly test drugs and other therapies.

“We have all these great drugs, but they’re underutilized,” he says. “Within a few weeks, we can do tests with yeast, whereas a (human) clinical trial will take several months.”

Nislow has been studying yeast mutants for two decades. He thinks the samples returning with Artemis – “fingers and toes crossed” – will be studied long after his own retirement.

And mankind has humble yeast to thank.

The Artemis I spacecraft is expected to launch early Monday, August 29, weather permitting. You can see it live on the NASA website, YouTube, and other social media channels.


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