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Bad news? Space travel will mess with your gut bacteria

Don’t go into space; it’ll wreak havoc on your gut. At least, that is one possible takeaway from a piece of research coming out of Northwestern University, where investigators have been exploring the impact of spaceflight on the gut microbiome, the communities of microorganisms found in the gastrointestinal tract.

“We analyzed mouse fecal samples obtained from NASA’s Biospecimen Sharing Program,” Martha Vitaterna, research professor in Northwestern’s Department of Neurobiology, told Digital Trends. “These were from the Rodent Research 1 (RR-1) mission, flown in 2014. DNA was extracted from the samples, and bacterial genes were sequenced from the DNA in order to identify what bacterial species were present and their relative abundances.”

In order to compare the spaceflight-associated changes with changes present in other data sets, the team had to develop a new analysis tool, called STARMAPs (Similarity Test for Accordant and Reproducible Microbiome Abundance Patterns). This helped them gain several insights into the impact of space travel, such as the fact that mice flown on the International Space Station and space shuttle wind up with different gut conditions from “control mice” on the ground — despite having matched habitats, temperature, and gas composition. These microbiome changes are not similar to changes induced by exposing mice to space-type radiation.

So should we really avoid the stars for fear of negatively impacting our gastrointestinal tract? “I would say that we still do not know how much of a risk microbiome disruption poses for space travel,” Vitaterna continued. “There are too many unknowns. We only have data from low Earth orbit, so there is not the same radiation exposure risk, for example. We also only have data from one inbred strain of mice, so we don’t know to what extent genetically different individuals may respond differently. If the spaceflight effect we have seen is due to microgravity, we have to consider whether more changes may appear with longer duration missions and with partial gravity, [such as] lunar or Martian gravity.”

It’s also not clear whether the changes have a notable impact on the host’s physiology and health. Still, between this and research showing that space travel changes the physical structure of astronauts’ eyes, it seems that life beyond Earth may not be one for the squeamish.

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Microbiome.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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