Jackson Laboratory employees (from left) Cecilia Gomm, Tyler Arruda and David Bennett in Florida for the SpaceX launch. Arruda, one of a team of animal care specialists who worked on the lab’s “mighty mice” sent into space in early December, was in Florida for the launch of the rocket. It was Arruda’s first time visiting Florida and first time on an airplane. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JACKSON LABORATORY

Jackson Lab employee thrilled to watch his work launch into space

BAR HARBOR — Tyler Arruda, an animal care supervisor at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, had a lot of firsts in early December. First time on an airplane, first visit to Florida, first rocket launching.

“It was six miles away, but it didn’t feel like six miles away,” said Arruda, as he watched the launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“They have little speakers,” said Arruda, but “Five seconds later you felt it … It was emotional. It was weird thinking I touched all of those mice in there — with my gloves on! — and now they’re going to space.”

Arruda, who was born in Fall River, Mass., but has lived in Maine since he was a teenager, was one of a team of Jackson Laboratory employees who raised the “mighty mice” that were sent to the International Space Station for four weeks. The mice were 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.

“Like me compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger,” joked Arruda.

It took about three months to raise the mice for the project, said Arruda, although Se-Jin Lee, along with his co-researcher (and spouse), Emily Germain-Lee, has been working on developing the project for two decades. The mice will help the researchers understand how microgravity affects muscle and bone degradation. This may yield insight into muscle degeneration of humans on Earth, such as in the elderly, those with rare diseases or conditions associated with muscle-wasting.

Lab employees sent 245 mice down to Florida for the launch, said Arruda, in case “the launch was scrubbed, there was a certain age of the mice that they needed to go up.” The mice that were sent were female, of specific ages and weights, said Arruda, and the lab had planned for bumps in the launch.

“We had months of planning already out,” said Arruda, “Just in case it does get pushed off. It happens, I guess, when you’re dealing with space and stuff and rockets,” he laughed.

While “all the projects are unique,” said Arruda, and represent a lifetime worth of work for researchers, the NASA project was different because of the teamwork and the strict deadlines.

“Everything’s on a time crunch and everything’s priority,” said Arruda. “You’ve got to get it done. That was the most stressful thing.”

Some areas of the project can be sped up, said Arruda, but many, such as the mating and gestation, can’t.

“I can only sing so much Lionel Richie,” Arruda said, laughing. “And they get tired of it.”

It takes roughly six weeks from conception for a baby mouse to be born and grow to adulthood.

“I’d never thought someone would trust me enough to do this type of project,” said Arruda. “You’re creating mice to go to space for someone who’s been working on this for the past 20 years… I knew in my head, if I mess up, this guy’s been working on this for 20 years. It’s a lot of responsibility. I didn’t sleep much.”

Lee and co-researchers Alexandra McPherron and Ann Lawler discovered myostatin in 1997. When they first found the molecule, Lee told The New York Times, he thought that it might initially be most relevant in making chickens, cows and pigs, which all have the gene, “produce twice as much meat with no more fat.”

Mice without myostatin, reported The Times, not only had “unusually big shoulders and hips,” they were also “a little [more] sluggish” than normal mice. The size of other types of muscle, like the cardiac muscle of the heart and the smooth muscle of the intestine, hadn’t been affected by getting rid of myostatin.

Lee also told the paper that he was hopeful his research might lead to new treatments for diseases such as muscular dystrophy, and severe wasting in some people with cancer and AIDS.

”But that’s a long way off,” he added, ”years away.”

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Digital Media Strategist
Kate is the paper's Digital Media Strategist, responsible for all things social, and the occasional story too! She's a former reporter for the paper and can be reached at: [email protected]
Kate Cough

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