School of Medicine surgeon to send fruit flies into space

March 6, 2013, 11:55 p.m.

Once the first animals sent into space, fruit flies could soon be returning to the stars, this time as part of a experiment studying the insects’ cardiovascular systems in space developed by a team including School of Medicine heart surgeon Peter Lee.

The experiment, which combines Lee’s interests in spaceflight and biological research, was one of eight selected in a national research competition hosted by Space Florida. All of the winning experiments will be transported to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket mission from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station between September and December 2013.

“I’m happy we got the award, and very excited about it,” Lee said. “Surely getting free access to space flights is not easy.”

While this experiment will be conducted with fruit flies, Lee said that the experiment will allow him to study potential long-term microgravity effects on the human cardiovascular system by analyzing the flies’ own systems upon their return.

Lee collaborated with Karen Ocorr and Rolf Bodmer from the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and with Sharmila Bhattacharya from the NASA Ames Research Center on the project.

Ocorr is an assistant professor in the Institute’s Neuroscience, Aging and Stem Cell Research Center, and Bodmer is a professor in the same program and director of the Institute’s Development and Aging Program. Both have extensively researched the heart functions of fruit flies.

Bhattacharya, who has worked at NASA for almost 14 years, is the head of the Biomodel Performance and Behavior Laboratory at the Ames Research Center and has conducted postdoctoral research in neurobiology at Stanford.

Bhattacharya said that she was eager to join the research team, noting that fruit flies have been used successfully in many previous microgravity experiments.

“I thought it was a great idea,” Bhattacharya said. “We came up with a game plan for something which is very doable.”

Ocorr said that the cardiovascular system of fruit flies is relatively similar to that of humans. According to Ocorr, the fruit fly is the only creature with a cardiovascular system that can adequately recreate long-term spaceflight in a realistic amount of time.

“Astronauts have a problem of facing muscular [de]generation,” she said. “We had built many models to try and predict and counter the effects of this, but the fruit fly has a great conservation of function.”

Lee also cited several other advantages to using fruit flies, including their small size — allowing researchers to fit a large sample size into a small canister — and the fact that the fruit fly genome has already been sequenced.

“You can create a lot of combinations and permutations, not just based on genetics,” Lee said. “You can affect nutrition, and so on.”

Bodmer echoed Lee’s sentiments about the advantages of using fruit flies and noted that a fly’s entire life cycle could be spent in orbit, with several generations of flies born during the flight.

“This entire lifetime can accurately simulate the effects on a human being of long-term flight, to say, Mars,” he said. “NASA is looking to get a [manned] mission to Mars in the near future, and this research is needed to understand long-term spaceflight.”

Nitish Kulkarni '16 is a senior majoring in Mechanical Engineering. He writes about technology and breaking news, and runs online content sections. Email him at nitishk2 'at'

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