Science & Technology

Want to visit Mars? Zebrafish may help

Queen’s University researchers observed zebrafish in a state of induced torpor; they believe such a state could protect humans during spaceflight

By DTE Staff
Published: Thursday 20 May 2021
Zebrafish. Photo: istock
Zebrafish. Photo: istock Zebrafish. Photo: istock

It is kept in aquariums by fish collectors drawn by its shiny blue stripes. Now, the humble fresh-water zebrafish may add some more shine to its metallic, blue-green fins — a new study reveals the tropical fish’s hibernating habits may teach us a thing or two on how to land our foot on Mars.

The zebrafish could help humans reach Mars by understanding how a form of hibernation, known as induced torpor (a state of reduced metabolic activity) may provide radio-protective effects, according to new research by Queen’s University Belfast in the United Kingdom.

Hibernation is a physiological condition found in many species. It protects them against harsh conditions, such as food scarcity and low environmental temperatures, a press statement by the university said.

Replicating hibernation may therefore protect astronauts against the harsh conditions of space flight, which include challenges such as radiation exposure, bone and muscle wastage, advanced ageing and vascular problems.

If astronauts hibernate on their journey, those difficulties may be solved, according to the researchers.

Recent technological advancements might have made space travel more accessible. However, long-term space travel was incredibly detrimental to human health, Gary Hardiman, researcher from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University and senior author of the research, said.

He added:

We set out to determine if induced torpor is a viable countermeasure to the harmful effects of spaceflight. If humans could replicate a similar model of hibernation we have observed in the zebrafish, it could increase our chances of making humans a spacefaring species.

Humans hibernating on spaceflights would lead to reduced brain function which would cut down on psychological stress.

 The change to their metabolism would stop them requiring food, oxygen or water. There was also a possibility it would protect their muscles from wasting due to the effects caused by radiation and microgravity, Hardiman said.

To conduct their study, the researchers exposed zebrafish to radiation like what would be experienced on a six-month journey to Mars.

They found that this radiation caused signatures of oxidative stress, stress hormone signaling and halting of the cell cycle within the zebrafish.

The researchers then induced torpor in a second group of zebrafish which were then exposed to the same dose of radiation and analysed their gene expression patterns to assess the protective effects during this induced state of physical or mental inactivity.

The results showed that torpor lowered the metabolic rate within the zebrafish and created a radioprotective effect, protecting against the harmful effects of radiation.

Thomas Cahill, PhD student from IGFS at Queen’s University and co-first author of the research, said:

Our results reveal that while in induced torpor, the zebrafish showed that a reduction in metabolism and oxygen concentration in cells promotes less oxidative stress and greater resistance to radiation.

These insights into how a reduction in metabolic rate could offer protection from radiation exposure and could help humans achieve a similar kind of hibernation, counter measuring the damage they currently face during spaceflight, he added.

The zebrafish is a freshwater fish belonging to the minnow family (Cyprinidae) of the order Cypriniformes. It is native to south Asia.

The research has been published in the journal MDPI Cells.

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