Scientists from the University of Surrey have won funding from the UK Space Agency to develop microgravity experiments that could lead to humans becoming better adapted to living in space.
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Essential processes such as sleep, immune function, inflammatory response, and circadian rhythms (24-hour cycle) are all jeopardised during spaceflight. The team of experts from Surrey, led by Professor Simon Archer, will be looking to identify blood-based biomarkers to understand why microgravity adversely affects many human physiological processes.
The team will use unique gene expression datasets collected from people during conditions of sleep and circadian disruption and data collected from a European Space Agency study where constant bed rest simulates the effects of microgravity. The Surrey researchers will then use sophisticated bioinformatics techniques to analyse the data and develop an experiment that could be run on the International Space Station to identify molecular biomarkers for the effects of spaceflight on human physiology.
Professor Simon Archer, Professor of Molecular Biology of Sleep at the University of Surrey, said: “The main problem is that we have evolved to be adapted to life on Earth. When we go into space, Earth’s natural environmental features are no longer present and we are not well adapted to microgravity – for example, the sun rises every 90 minutes on the International Space Station. This causes problems for physiology, sleep, performance and health.
“Our study aims to characterise this disruption by looking at changes in gene expression in blood cells and correlating this with disruption that occurs around the body. If we can understand the affected mechanisms and pathways, then we can begin to develop interventions and countermeasures that could minimise the disruption and improve health and performance.”
Science Minister, Jo Johnson, said: “Research and innovation are at the core of our Industrial Strategy, and by investing in these types of projects, we are reinforcing our position as a world leader in these important and exciting areas.”
Libby Jackson, Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency, said: “Microgravity science in the UK has grown rapidly since we joined the ISS programme back in 2012. Any future mission to the ISS represents a really exciting opportunity to build on this and to ensure that the UK science community is properly placed to capitalise on the research opportunities that such a flight would offer.”
The Surrey team includes Prof Simon Archer, Prof Derk-Jan Dijk, Dr Emma Laing and Dr Carla Möller-Levet.
Bed Rest project: http://gtr.rcuk.ac.uk/projects?ref=BB%2FN004981%2F1
Surrey Sleep Research Centre: https://www.surrey.ac.uk/surrey-sleep-research-centre
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Professor Simon Archer
Professor of Molecular Biology of Sleep
Professor Derk-Jan Dijk
Professor of Sleep and Physiology, Dir. Surrey Sleep Research Centre
Dr Emma Laing
Senior Lecturer in Bioinformatics, Head of Bioinformatics
Dr Carla Moller-Levet
Experimental Officer in Bioinformatics