ELLSWORTH — A number of muscular “Mighty Mice” from The Jackson Laboratory got a big boost last week when they boarded a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida headed for the International Space Station.
The mice, which were raised by the lab’s team in Bar Harbor, have been genetically engineered to lack myostatin, a protein that regulates muscle growth. They have roughly twice the muscle mass of an average mouse and will help researchers study the effect of microgravity on muscle and bone loss.
The mice will spend the next month in space in order to help researcher Dr. Se-Jin Lee and his co-researcher (and spouse), Dr. Emily Germain-Lee of the UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, understand how microgravity affects muscle and bone degeneration.
“This is a project that I’ve been trying to get off the ground, so to speak, for many, many years. To see it all come together now is nothing short of amazing,” said Lee in a press release.
Lee discovered the myostatin gene in 1997, and was the first to show the protein’s role in regulating muscle growth. His space-based project, funded by a competitive Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) grant, will explore a new angle on the role of myostatin.
“The knowledge we gain about microgravity’s effects on muscles and bones will help us to enhance the health of astronauts — both in space and on Earth, and also better understand the promise that myostatin inhibitors hold for the elderly, people who are bedridden, and for people experiencing muscle-wasting related to diseases like AIDS, ALS, cancer and so many others.”
Animals have long been used to study the effects of space travel on the body and to help solve one of the primary debates among scientists in the field: can the body survive long periods of weightlessness?
Without gravity, human bones lose minerals and density far more quickly than they do on Earth. Fluids in the body shift upward, potentially resulting in pressure on the eyes and possible vision loss. And without gravity to strain against, muscles can atrophy. Scientists have shown that astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their muscle mass even on short space flights of between 5 and 11 days.
Albert I, a rhesus monkey, was the first animal to head skyward, having been launched (with little fanfare), according to NASA, from White Sands, N.M., in 1948, making him “an unsung hero of animal astronauts.” Since then, a number of monkeys, chimps and dogs have been catapulted into the atmosphere and beyond.
Mice have been space traveling since 1951, and NASA recently created a rodent habitat aboard the International Space Station, complete with cameras that beam back delightful videos of the murine visitors adapting to weightlessness.
The Mighty Mice will carry on the long tradition of animal astronauts and will even have an astronaut from their home state alongside them: astronaut and Caribou native Jessica Meir, a physiologist who is serving as a flight engineer on the current space station mission.
“We are so excited to help advance our research findings both to help protect our astronauts traveling to space and to aid people here on Earth with serious health conditions that impact their muscle and bone strength and use, and most importantly their daily quality of life,” said Germain-Lee.