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Mice in Space

November last year, space shuttle "Discovery" left Earth along with six astronauts and guess what -- 16 astro-mice! The mice are brought for a specific reason and it is said that they are destined to make history. The astronauts and the mice went to space in order to know more about the effects of the new environment to the overall health of humans and animals. This is in line with the current efforts of the NASA to get substantial data in order to verify if humans can indeed survive in space, come the time when the Earth will no longer be liveable.

NASA has been researching about the behaviour and condition of the human's immune system when it is in space. The people behind the study want to assess if the change in gravity as well as the overall environmental factors which are exclusive to Earth will also alter a human's capability to combat harmful bacteria and diseases. Of course, since this task is too risky for a human to test on himself/herself, the astronauts brought with them the mice so that they can be put into the test first. We have all known of the great help that mice have given humanity when we began testing genetic mutation on them. Decades ago, we even started to grow human tissues in their bodies -- things which helped save thousands of lives already. This time, the experts are again soliciting the help of these rodents to again achieve another great feat, something which would have been really impossible if the mice where not around.

This particular research by NASA has been there for more than 25 years already. NASA has even partnered with the University of Texas for this endeavour. The goal of the medical branch of the University is to find a way to help those who currently have immune system problems on Earth (HIV positive) while the intentions of NASA is highly futuristic. Well, their goals might be different but the two agencies are working hand in hand to achieve the same thing, which I think, is what's more important.

NASA started to pay attention to immune system problems after the astronauts from the Apollo missions showed decreased susceptibility to diseases when they came back. Even while they are still in space, many of the scientists became ill, although they never have records of being sick before they left Earth. The only sensible explanation that NASA can think of is that maybe there is something is space that makes a human's immune system suffer. This theory is yet to be tested, and that is the reason why they brought mice into space.

The thing is, the mice should experience the same immune system problems that the astronauts have suffered and if they don't, then that's the angle that the NASA is particularly itching for. The idea is that when the mice do not become affected by the change in environment, the experts would have to make deductions that the effects are exclusive to humans, something which brings to the surface so many interesting questions. These questions are vital in determining whether humans can indeed live outside Earth.

A professor in the University of Texas, Dr. Garofalo said that the susceptibility of the astronauts to bacterial infection might be caused by the dormancy of their bodies while they are in space. Once they start the spaceflight again, their bodies no longer have enough time to adjust back to the movement and so it becomes weak. This theory is of course not founded yet, but D. Garofalo is convinced that this might be the real case. He compared the susceptibility to the astronauts to that an elderly or a child and the best way to verify this is to subject the mice into the test (mice have similar systems as humans).

In order to keep the research fail-safe, the researchers have also kept the same number of mice on the ground, inside their laboratories on Earth. These mice came from the same bloodline as the mice which are brought in space. Both the mice on Earth and in space are given the same nourishment. The end goal of the research is to compare the health conditions of the two groups of mice and see if the group in space will become more vulnerable to the same infections by introducing them to the bacteria that cause it. Once the mice have been exposed to the bacteria, they will be examined and the researchers are hoping that they would finally be able to identify the reasons why the immune system is weakened in space.

The lungs and the other organs of the mice will be inspected and using various statistical data and sampling, the researchers will compare the changes in these organs and identify which factors caused these changes. Scientists are very confident that the mice will be able to give them substantive results since these little rodents have been doing this for the past few decades.

Other Functions of Mice in Space

Apart from helping scientists in their researches on the human's immune system, mice are also used by astronauts in space to verify if the absence of gravity can indeed affect the sense of direction of an animal. The research involves having mice breed in space and then allowing the pregnant mice to give birth to their child in space. For comparison, a pair of mice from the same bloodline is also mated on Earth at the same time. The two pregnant mice will give birth at the same time and their offspring will be tested by dropping the two critters into an aquarium full of water. The critter from space was brought back to the ground for a side by side comparison. The results were impressive. The mouse from space was not able to redirect its body so that its feet are aligned to hit the ground. The mouse from Earth only took a second to position itself to hit the ground with its feet.
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