Research Suggests Zero Gravity is Dangerous for Human Immune Systems

Von Kalm resizedFinally! Fruit flies have a practical use outside of ruining your fruits. Recently, the scientific jounral “PLOS One” published an article about changes in fruit fly immunity after spending an extended period of time in outer space without gravity. The experiment and article were a collaborative project between researchers at the University of California at Davis and the University of Central Florida’s Laurence Von Kalm (pictured left) with his graduate students Rachel Morgan and Tangi Smallwood.

The insects were sent on the space shuttle Discovery in 2006 for a 12-day mission. Fruit flies were chosen for the experiment because their immune systems mirror human’s.  Researchers wanted to study the long term effects of weightless on human immune systems. Scientists have previously found negative effects on muscles and bones, like degeneration, from extended periods in space. Therfore it made sense to test if other parts of the body were similarly affected. Their findings were surprising.

“Our study showed that a biochemical pathway needed to fight fungal infections is seriously compromised in the flies after space flight,” said Von Kalm. In layman’s terms, after breeding on their trip to space, the fruit flies’ immune systems were unable to find or get rid of fungal infections on their own. This is a huge finding, with serious implications for astronaut’s health in space and for once they return.
Oddly, only one portion of the immune system stopped functioning. The other part which fights off bacterial infections was still intact. Still another puzzle, when the researchers placed fruit flies into a centerfuge on earth and exposed to above average gravitational force, they displayed a stronger immunity to fungal infections.
“More work will be needed to determine if similar effects occur in humans, but this gives us some clues. Getting a better understanding is particularly important, especially as we look to engage in long-term missions such as interplanetary space flights,” said Von Kalm. The team hopes to lauch more flies into space soon, sending them to the International Space Station.
For the original articles in UCFToday and CNN, click the highlighted text.

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