NASA research finds mitochondrial changes may cause health issues in space

The human body was designed for living on Earth, not in space. Living in space is difficult for people and other living things because of the harsh environment. NASA has been conducting research to figure out what causes health problems in space. Researchers believe they have now identified a possible underlying reason for health problems in space after discovering mitochondria experiences changes in activity during space flight.

The recently published study used data collected over decades of experimental research on the ISS, including samples from 59 astronauts. NASA says studies like this are critical to understanding the effects of low gravity, radiation, confined spaces, and more as the space agency gears up to send astronauts deeper into space for extended missions to the moon, Mars, and beyond in the future. NASA researcher Afshin Beheshti, the lead author of the paper, said that researchers found a universal mechanism explaining the changes seen in the human body while in space, and where it was discovered was unexpected.

The researcher said that everything gets thrown out of whack, and it starts with the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cells. The research used a comprehensive database of animal studies collected on the GeneLab platform at the NASA Ames Research Center, along with a NASA twin study that compared identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly over a year. GeneLab is the first platform to capture large amounts of space biology "omics" data used to characterize and quantify biological molecules, including DNA, RNA, and proteins.

Mitochondria are tiny structures inside cells that produce energy for the basic units of biology inside the human body and the bodies of other living things. When energy production breaks down, many of the body's key organs and the immune system can be in jeopardy. New research indicates the breakdown in mitochondria activity may contribute to health or performance challenges humans face in space.

Researchers compared tissue from mice flown on separate missions and noticed that mitochondrial dysfunction was common. No matter where the mice's problems were, be it the eyes or the liver, the same pathways related to mitochondria were the cause. The data NASA gathered on humans also backed the hypothesis. Changes were observed in Scott Kelly's immune system during his year in space in 2015 and could be explained by changes observed in the activity of mitochondria. Blood and urine samples gathered from other astronauts also showed evidence that being in space caused altered mitochondrial activity in various types of cells.