Researchers prepare to send mushrooms around the moon
WASHINGTON – Microbiologists at the US Naval Research Laboratory are preparing experimental mushroom samples to be sent for a tentatively scheduled moon tour later in 2021 or early 2022.
The experiment aims to provide insight into fungi’s natural defenses against radiation, a phenomenon that could prove useful for future space exploration and sustainable life in space.
“In the past year, we have passed the scientific verification test to make sure that the experiment works in our lab, which is the first step in this project,” said Zheng Wang, NRL microbiologist and researcher. main of this project. “Additionally, since October 2020, we have performed an experimental verification test at the Kennedy Space Center, which mimics the flight environment for approximately two months.”
Fungi have natural mechanisms to protect and repair DNA damage caused by radiation. These mechanisms allow fungi to withstand several hundred times more radiation than humans. This experiment will study the melanin in fungi (which can help protect them from damage), as well as DNA repair pathways (which repair damage once it occurs). The fungus used for this experiment will be Aspergillus niger, a black mold commonly used in laboratories and industry and also one of the predominant fungi detected on the International Space Station (ISS).
“We’re looking at fungi that are extremely resistant to radiation and trying to figure out why,” said Jillian Romsdahl, microbiologist and NRC postdoctoral fellow for the project. “But we’re also looking at a larger question of how biological systems adapt to deep space, which has implications for people trying to get to Mars or beyond.”
Researchers are preparing four different samples of Aspergillus niger – one wild-type strain and three mutated strains that were genetically modified in the lab. A mutated strain is defective in the manufacture of melanin, so it can be compared to the wild type strain which produces melanin.
The other two mutated strains will be deficient in DNA repair pathways. Wang’s group wants to know how important these DNA pathways are in protecting fungal cells from radiation damage. They also want to know if the radiation stimulates new DNA pathways not yet discovered.
During the actual experiment, the fungal samples will be stored in NASA’s Orion capsule and launched into space, where they will travel around the moon for three weeks. Once completed, NASA will return the samples to the NRL for analysis.
The researchers plan to compare the samples to look for changes in DNA and other biomolecules. Fungal cells will undergo a thorough analysis of morphological, physiological and chemical changes.
In the long term, the researchers hope to use the knowledge gained to investigate new ways to prevent radiation damage to humans and equipment in space.
The LNR team is also studying these research questions from other angles. Wang’s research group was recently selected by NASA to study how melanized fungal cells adapt to Mars-like conditions using NASA’s Antarctic Balloon Platform. The team is also working with the DoD Space Testing Program and the ISS National Laboratory to send fungal samples to the International Space Station to study how microgravity and radiation alter the production of biomaterials and biomolecules. beneficial.
“Mushrooms are great at adapting,” Wang said. If we can harness their natural defense mechanisms, we could take advantage of biological systems to develop protective mechanisms for equipment or astronauts. As a DoD lab, NRL is in an excellent position for this. We have the facilities and the capabilities. “
Zachary Schultzhaus, former Jerome and Isabella Karle fellow emeritus and another researcher on the project, said it is also possible to grow mushrooms in space to produce different molecules for therapeutic purposes, such as medicine or vitamins. Instead of carrying all the food and medicine needed for a mission, astronauts could produce it on demand. He hopes to explore the idea further once this current research project comes to an end.
NRL’s work on studying the roles of melanin and DNA repair on the adaptation and survival of fungi in deep space is funded by NASA and is expected to continue until 2022.
About the US Naval Research Laboratory
NRL is a dedicated scientific and technical research command that drives innovative advancements for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps from the seabed to space and in the information realm. NRL is located in Washington, DC with major field sites at the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; Monterey, Calif., And employs approximately 2,500 civilian scientists, engineers and support staff.
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