Space Biology

Space Biology

Projects on microbial, animal and human sciences to study the viability of life on Mars

Circadian rhythms in space

by Carla Conejo

Existing literature provides evidence of significant sleep loss and disruption of circadian rhythms in astronauts, due to extended duty days, irregular work schedules, high workload, and other environmental factors, plus the fact that a sol (a solar day on Mars) is slightly longer than an Earth day (approximately 24 hours and 37 minutes long). Therefore, sleep times and performance can be compromised triggering serious consequences on the effectiveness, health, and safety of astronaut crews, thus increasing the chances of an accident or incident. During my stay at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), I will investigate the circadian profile of the stress hormone cortisol, which shows pronounced endogenous diurnal rhythm affected by sleep-wake cycle, meals and activity. The experiment will have the crewmembers as subjects of study, and the measurement will be performed with saliva samples and a reaction kit. Additionally, I want to monitor the electrical activity of the brain during sleep of all crew members at different stages during the mission. The collection of data will contribute to update the state of the art concerning circadian disruptions during space operations, as well as to develop approaches to manage and overcome the human limitations of space travel. Such preventive measures could be implemented and investigated in further missions at MDRS.

Aquaculture on Mars: exploring hostile environments for food productivity

by Laia Ribas

In Mars, auto-sustainability is at the core of living in a hostile environment where temperatures are extreme and the light of the sun is limited with longer circadian cycles than that on Earth. In particular, food resources and food availability are important factors towards providing enough food for human consumption on Mars. In Nüwa, a designed Martian city for one million people, all food resources were envisioned to work in a closed cycle in which equilibrium of the living organisms is essential. The main goal of this project is to study how environmental factors (temperature and light cycle) might affect food productivity, in particular, aquaculture.  I propose to work with zebrafish (Danio rerio), a popular fish model, to study the effects of low temperatures and circadian cycles on fish survival, hatching rates and behavior during early stages of development. Present data might help to better design the Life Support System required on Mars.

Cellular intelligence on Martian surface

by Cesca Cufí-Prat

Physarum polycephalum (here after physarum), commonly known as “blob”, is an example of plasmodial myxomycetes (commonly named plasmodial slime molds) that consists of a multinucleate single cell amoeba like organism. Its size is commonly of a few centimeters of diameter, and it can move within speeds of few centimeters per hour. This curious creature shows rare learning capabilities for a single celled organism. During its plasmodial state, the physarum explores its surroundings in search of food. It is capable of memorizing its previous path and of finding the optimum one towards the food sources. Slime molds are not only surprising for its learning capabilities but for being extremely resistant: in the lack of food supplies or adverse environmental conditions, they produce spores that are highly resistant to harsh environment and can stay dormant for decades waiting for the proper conditions to germinate.

Physarum has long been used as a model system for study of cell cycle, differentiation and other cell biological topics. Its life cycle state and behavior being easily observable at naked eye makes physarum a good candidate to study how cells respond to the environment. Mars is about 1.4 times further from the Sun than the Earth is. For this reason, the radiant power of the Sun on the martian surface is 50% the one on Earth surface. Moreover, lacking a thick atmosphere containing in H2O and O3 the Martian surface is highly exposed to UV and higher influenced by IR radiation than the Earth surface. Furthermore,  Mars does  not have a global magnetic filed to deflect high energetic particles. Thus, Mars surface is highly exposed to X and gamma rays.

Physarum has shown to be very sensible to light. It can slow down the process of exploration of the plasmodium and trigger the production of spores. This research aims at studying the influence of UV, visible and infrared radiation on the exploration behavior and sporulation triggering of physarum. If physarum was exposed to radiation similar to that on Mars, how these life processes will be affected? Will this research give us some clues on how life on Mars can be developed? Will it further give us some clues about life development on Earth before atmosphere formation?

Life on earth is such a good story you cannot afford to miss the beginning… Beneath our superficial differences we are all of us walking communities of bacteria. The world shimmers, a pointillist landscape made of tiny living beings. Life did not take over the world by combat, but by networking.

Lynn Margulis, the biologist who articulated the endosymbiotic theory