Fruit Flies May Offer Clues to Boosting Astronauts’ Immunity

Astronauts are spending longer periods in space, posing new challenges to keeping them healthy. Given the altered living conditions and limited medical resources, helping them maintain a strong immune system is crucial.
“As humans prepare to explore space in long-duration missions, we have to be concerned about how microgravity conditions affect immune system function,” says Shubha Govind (GC/CCNY, Biology and Biochemistry).
Govind is the principal investigator for a space biology experiment, Fruit Fly Lab-03, that launched on April 2 for the International Space Station (ISS), where the experiment is spending one month. The researchers sent up a collection of Drosophila melanogaster, or common fruit flies, some of which are co-housed with their natural parasite, the Leptopilina wasp.
Using the fly’s innate immune system as a model for humans’, the experiment will give researchers an idea of how our immune system responds to attacks while in space. It will also provide information on whether conditions in space affect a parasite’s — in this case, the wasp’s — ability to infect its host.
The extremely small amount of gravity in spacecraft like the ISS can affect cells, their gene expression, and the development of the organism, Govind explains. The question behind this experiment is how these conditions will play out in immune system responses, whether on a molecular or whole-body scale. A parasite’s job is to quash these responses in its host, so the researchers will also study how microgravity conditions affect the wasps’ success in infecting the flies, thus examining both sides of the host-parasite interaction.
Genetic similarities make the fly’s immune system a good paradigm for that of humans.
“The fruit fly's genome has more than 70 percent of the disease genes identified in humans,” Govind says. “The mechanism underlying innate immunity — the first line of defense against parasites and pathogens — is genetically similar between flies and humans.”
The other benefit of using insect models is that the researchers can study a large number of hosts and parasites in a short amount of time, allowing for a more rigorous experiment.
Some of Govind’s other research also uses fruit flies and their wasp predators as models to study inflammation, immunity, and virulence mechanisms. Projects on the ground and projects in the cosmos will build on each other, she says.
“These space biology experiments pose a number of fresh questions and expand our understanding of what we know from our experiments done here on Earth,” Govind says. “Answers to these questions will help build our understanding of human physiology in space.”

Submitted on: APR 27, 2018

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