A New Crew of ‘Mousetronauts’ Is About to Launch to the International Space Station

April 7, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Lab mouse
Photo credit: pixabay.com

The mission will be the longest time a mouse has ever stayed in space.

The International Space Station (ISS) is about to get some new crew members — 20 mousetronauts! The mice will travel to the ISS tucked inside SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship, which will be launching tomorrow (April 8) to resupply the station. Once the mousetronauts arrive, they will be studied to help scientists better understand how muscles deteriorate during spaceflight.

According to Motherboard, both mice and rats have a long history of spaceflight that dates back to the 1950s — at least 27 shuttle missions have carried rodent passengers into orbit. However, none of those missions lasted longer than two weeks. On the ISS, the scientists will be able to house the mice for periods of 30 to 90 days in a rodent research facility, shown in the image below, which will substantially improve their knowledge on the effects of microgravity on different organ systems.

Rodent research facility on the ISS

Photo credit: NASA

Mice are often used in biological research because of their commonality with human DNA sequences, as well as their shorter lifespans — about two years — which allow researchers to perform more experiments in a short amount of time. In fact, when mice age, they show the same degenerative processes over those two years that humans display later in life.

The experiment, named Rodent Research-3-Eli Lilly, was sponsored by the US pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly. While in orbit, the mice will be used to test how bones and muscles respond to a microgravity environment. Understanding how these systems behave in the absence of gravity will help researchers counteract the effects, and maybe even develop treatments to fight diseases here on Earth.

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“Muscle wasting is seen in diseases such as muscular dystrophy, ALS, cancer cachexia and even musculoskeletal frailty associated with aging,” Rosamund Smith, principal investigator on the experiment told Motherboard. “We’re hoping the experiment results will give us scientific insight into how better to treat patients who are suffering from muscle atrophy.”

Once the all-female mousetronaut crew arrives at the ISS, they will be divided into two groups: one that receives a series of subcutaneous injections containing a myostatin inhibitor, which is believed to slow the rate of muscle degeneration, and a control group. This same experiment will also be conducted on Earth and the data will be compared.

“This flight in particular is important to our overall research program on the ISS,” explained Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief scientist during a pre-launch teleconference, according to Motherboard. “SpaceX is a workhorse for us, carrying many late load payloads. This capability allows us to conduct important biological research with live animals.”

The mice will be observed via a live video feed, and they will also carry out tasks designed to test their muscle function. A specialized machine will even test changes in their gripping strength over the course of the six-week mission. Once the mission ends, the mice will be dissected and sent back to Earth for further analysis.

Mice have been used in orbital experiments for decades since the pathways and processes involved in breaking down body systems occurs at a more more rapid pace within the animals. They are invaluable for understanding how the human body will respond to the harsh environment of outer space.

The benefit of the ISS is that scientists will get a clearer picture of how muscle size and function deteriorate over time.

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