tool to analyse change of bacteria astronaut guts, STARMAPS tool for analysing bacterial change in guts of astronauts, how spaceflight affects the guts of astronauts, this is how our guts are affected by space travel
The tool by researchers at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty is called STARMAPS. It was used to analyse the data from dif­fer­ent exper­i­ments, includ­ing mice sam­ples, NASA’s Twin Study and Earth-based stud­ies on the effects of radi­a­tion on the gut. (Rep­re­sen­ta­tive pho­to: Get­ty Images/Thinkstock)

Researchers at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty in the US have recent­ly devel­oped a new tool that shows that space­flight, both when astro­nauts are aboard a space shut­tle or when they are in the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS), con­sis­tent­ly affects the microor­gan­isms in their gut.

The tool is called STARMAPS (Sim­i­lar­i­ty Test for Accor­dant and Repro­ducible Micro­bio­me Abun­dance Pat­terns) and it got used to analyse the data from dif­fer­ent exper­i­ments, includ­ing mice sam­ples (rang­ing from Rodent Research‑1 to 7), the US space agency’s Twin Study and Earth-based stud­ies on the effects of radi­a­tion on the gut.

As per a wide range of data, mice on the space shut­tle and on ISS went through changes sim­i­lar to that of NASA astro­naut Scott Kel­ly dur­ing his 11 months stay in space. The new study also sug­gests that such changes in micro­bio­mes are most like­ly to have been caused because of the micro­grav­i­ty, instead of radi­a­tion, as per a state­ment by North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. The research study was pub­lished last month in the jour­nal Micro­bio­me.

“Radi­a­tion def­i­nite­ly has an effect on the gut micro­bio­me,” Martha Vita­ter­na, the lead author of this study said in the state­ment. “But those effects do not look like what we saw in space­flight,” she added.

The research looked at mouse sam­ples from the final NASA space shut­tle mis­sion, STS 135, which launched in 2011 and also the sam­ples from sev­en mice groups which were sent to ISS as a part of Rodent Research mis­sion by NASA.

The changes that the researchers observed in the mice groups on ISS were com­pared to that of a ground con­trol group, a base­line group and a lab­o­ra­to­ry group that was housed in a con­ven­tion­al mouse facil­i­ty. In addi­tion to this, data from NASA’s Twin Study which com­pared phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes in NASA astro­naut Scott Kel­ly to his Earth-bound twin, Mark.

Though the research showed that space­flight does cause changes in the bac­te­r­i­al diver­si­ty in the gut micro­bio­me, the exact cause of the change was not very clear.

“There wasn’t a sta­tis­ti­cal approach for doing this work,” Vita­ter­na said in her state­ment. “The tools didn’t exist, so we invent­ed them. It’s a clas­sic case of how neces­si­ty is the moth­er of inven­tion.”

With the help of STARMAPS, the researchers could iden­ti­fy the pat­terns where dif­fer­ent types of bac­te­ria become more or less abun­dant under dif­fer­ent con­di­tions. The study showed sim­i­lar types of changes in the space­flight and ground con­trol mice when com­pared with the oth­er two mice groups.

The data fetched from NASA’s Twin Study also showed a sim­i­lar pat­tern of micro­bio­me changes in NASA astro­naut Scott Kel­ly. The find­ings from the research sug­gest that gut micro­bio­me changes can be com­pared among mul­ti­ple space­flights, accord­ing to the researchers.

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“If we are going to send humans to Mars or on long mis­sions to the moon, it is essen­tial to under­stand the effects of long-term expo­sure of the space envi­ron­ment on us – and on the tril­lions of bac­te­ria trav­el­ing with us,” Fred W. Turek, the co-author of the study said in the state­ment.

There were some dif­fer­ences in the micro­bio­me changes that were observed between the mice groups on space­flight and ground con­trol groups, which showed that the habi­tat holds the key.

Ear­li­er research­es on the radi­a­tion effects on mice micro­bio­me did not show the same pat­tern of micro­bio­me changes so the researchers feel that micro­grav­i­ty might have an effect on the gut micro­bio­me, how­ev­er fur­ther research is need­ed to be done.

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“Under­stand­ing what genet­ic fac­tors con­tribute to dif­fer­ences in bac­te­r­i­al strains will be use­ful for devel­op­ing coun­ter­mea­sures that can pro­tect your micro­bio­me dur­ing stress­ful peri­ods,” Vita­ter­na said in the state­ment.

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