Our newest Astronauts are fruit flies!
Becoming an Astronaut is a big deal! Men and women selected to go into space are very carefully chosen. They go through rigorous medical evaluations to make sure they are healthy and that their bodies can withstand the forces of liftoff and re-entry. And they go through months and months of training to prepare them for their first space flight. Now NASA is sending untested, untrained astronauts into space. Of course, they are not human, they are fruit flies!
Fruit flies are bug eyed and spindly, they love rotten bananas, and, following orders from their pin-sized brains, they can lay hundreds of eggs every day.
We have a lot in common.
Genetically speaking, people and fruit flies are surprisingly alike, explains biologist Sharmila Bhattacharya of NASA's Ames Research Center. "About 77% of known human disease genes have a recognizable match in the genetic code of fruit flies, and 50% of fly protein sequences have mammalian analogues."
That's why fruit flies, known to scientists as Drosophila melanogaster, are commonplace in genetic research labs. They can be good substitutes for people. They reproduce quickly, so that many generations can be studied in a short time, and their genome has been completely mapped. Drosophila is being used as a genetic model for several human diseases including Parkinson's and Huntington's.
They're about to become genetic models for astronauts. "We are sending fruit flies to the International Space Station," says Bhattacharya. "They will orbit Earth alongside astronauts, helping us explore the effects of long-term space flight on human beings."
The flies will be living in a habitat developed at Ames called the "Fruit Fly Lab." Inside, they will lead the hurried lives of fruit flies--living, dying, reproducing, and experiencing the same space radiation and microgravity as their human counterparts. Cameras will record the behavior and appearance of these miniature astronauts; and at intervals some of them will be frozen and returned to Earth for analysis.
This research was recommended by the National Research Council itself. In a recent Decadal Survey, the council noted that "model systems offer increasingly valuable insights into basic biology." And they called for "an organized effort to identify common changes in gene expression [among] key model systems in space."
Male fruit fly image via Shutterstock.
Read more at Research.gov