Living in Space Makes Our Bodies More Susceptible to Infections

By Jake Parks | December 7, 2018 4:52 pm

Mice have long been used for biomedical research here on Earth, but in the last few decades, they’ve been increasingly ferried to space to help scientists better understand how living in microgravity can affect biological organisms. (Credit: National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia Commons)

Even just 30 days in space can significantly reduce our immune system’s ability to fight infection, suggests a new analysis of mice that spent a month aboard an orbiting spacecraft.

The research, which was published December 6 in the journal Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, is a recent analysis of data from the Bion-M1 mission, which was a collaborative project carried out by NASA and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in 2013.

Space Mice

As part of the study, an international team of researchers compared three distinct groups of mice. The first two groups spent 30 days orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 360 miles (575 kilometers), while the third group, which served as the control, remained on the planet under similar feeding and housing conditions. Of the two space-bound groups of mice, one was examined immediately following its return to Earth, whereas the other was evaluated a week later.

According to the study, which analyzed proteins found within the rodent’s femur bones, the researchers revealed that living in a microgravity environment for even 30 days is enough to dramatically impair the mice’s ability to produce vital immune system cells, and this effect persisted even after a week safely back on Earth.


Although a series of equipment failures, including a malfunctioning feeding system, killed over half of the mice aboard the Bion-M1 biosatellite, enough specimens survived that researchers were still able to glean valuable insights related to how spaceflight affects the body. The opening of the Bion-M1 hatch after the flight landed is seen here. (Credit: IMBP)

Specifically, the space-bound mice experienced more than a 40 percent reduction in their number of B lymphocytes (or B cells). Since these lymphocytes are necessary for the production of antibodies, the researchers say the dearth of B cells may help explain why many organisms — including astronauts — tend to be more susceptibility to infection during stints in space.

“We hope these finding will encourage exploration of countermeasures to improve astronauts’ health and increase the safety of spaceflight,” said co-author Fabrice Bertile, a researcher at the Hubert Curien Multidisciplinary Institute’s Analytical Sciences Department in France, in a press release. “Such concerns are of major importance at a time when space agencies are envisioning manned missions to the moon, asteroids, and even Mars in the near future.”

Beyond Astronauts

But these new insights into how spaceflight affects the immune system are not only applicable to astronauts. A significant number of people on Earth are immobilized or lead sedentary lives, situations that also affect the immune system in ways similar to microgravity. Future research on how microgravity impacts the immune system may have serious implications for millions of Earth-bound residents.

Moving forward, the researchers suggest future studies should explore whether longer missions are more detrimental to the immune system than shorter ones, as well as investigate how the antibodies produced in a microgravity environment are qualitatively different from those produced on Earth.


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  • Mike Richardson

    These studies of the negative effects of microgravity just keep reinforcing the need to develop a reliable means of creating artificial gravity for long-duration space missions or permanent orbiting colonies. I like how in the science fiction series “The Expanse,” this is addressed by means of an advanced fusion drive capable of a constant 1-g acceleration, as well as rotating habitats to generate centrifugal artificial gravity. In the near term, centrifugal force artificial gravity is the only realistic prospect, and NASA and other space agencies should be conducting long duration experiments to see how life adapts to replacing gravity with centrifugal force. Coriolis force effects may prove problematic for the human equilibrium system, or we may adapt to it with few issues. However, we need to know for sure in order to know how viable plans for a long-term human presence in space actually are. I’m an optimist, but I want facts instead of wishful thinking.

  • OWilson

    Aside from the obvious risks and biological changes associated with human space travel and colonization, there are the human cultural considerations.

    It takes an enormous investment of resources in selecting, training, transporting and sustaining the 0.0001% who are mentally and physically and suitable to be cloistered at close quarters in an alien environment.

    Biosphere experiments, here on Earth, and far flung Antarctic research stations show that the average human does not fare well over prolonged periods of isolation from their natural habitat. (see Biosphere 2, and Murder at the South Pole!)

    The few hardy, highly trained, expensively sustained and heavily monitored individuals, who can survive the “frutration and annoyance” – NASA, of close quarter, albeit temporary excursions to space do not represent he human race at large, no more than a Bengal Tiger in a zoo, or a guppy in a jam jar, represents a succesful outcome for the animal kingdom.

    It took millions of years of evolution here on Earth, to get to where we are, but still half the world wants to kill the other half.

    The limitations to space travel and future colonization are human, not scientific or technological!


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