Tiny fruit flies have hitched a ride aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. They're part of an experiment designed by the University of Central Florida and the University of California-Davis - to better understand how a prolonged stay in space could affect an astronaut's immune system.
While it is known that astronauts lose bone and muscle mass in space, scant research has been done on human infection in the almost total absence of gravity. University of Central Florida researcher Laurence von Kalm of the UCF Department of Biology says the self-contained experiment is carrying a small amount of a fungus that is not contagious to humans. "The question we are going to ask is, are the flies that traveled in space more susceptible to infection? In other words, do they die more rapidly after infection than flies that have stayed on the ground?"
He adds that fruit flies serving as control subjects on the ground have been infected [with the fungus] as well. "The variable that we will check, and this is why the fungus traveled into space as well, is [whether] the fungus itself could become more virulent in space. We would be able to determine that from the experiments as well."
Von Kalm says the fruit fly was chosen because the genes that control response to infection are the same as in humans. "So, there is a good chance if we learn anything from the fruit fly we will have a lot of information that we can extrapolate towards the astronauts and human immune system."
But will what scientists learn from these tiny space travelers have any relevance for earth-bound humans? "The answer is possibly yes," says von Kalm. "Because every time we look at something from a different perspective, [we] may just stumble across something that was previously unknown about the immune system. So, there are a lot of exciting things that could come out of it."
Von Kalm says the on-board experiment is largely hands-off and only requires that an astronaut change a food tray once during the 12-day mission.