As far as we know, life only exists on Earth. How, then, does one combine interests in space and biology? One option is astrobiology, the field that studies the origin of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Another possibility, more grounded in everyday needs, is space biology. In this field, scientists study the effects of the space environment on organisms, with relevant implications for astronauts off Earth and for the rest of us on Earth. To learn more about space biology, we spoke to Yen-Kai Chen. He is currently researching space biology at the University of Auckland and is New Zealand’s national point of contact for the Space Generation Advisory Council.
What specifically do you study regarding the effects of spaceflight on biological organisms?
My research concerns microgravity, whose effects you can see when astronauts float about while in space. Life as we know it evolved with gravity, so life reacts differently in its absence. A lot of people know that microgravity causes astronauts to experience continuous bone and muscle demineralization in space. But what’s less obvious, perhaps, is what happens to bacteria. My research primarily focuses on the effects of microgravity on particular bacteria.
What relevance does your field have for humanity’s continued engagement with space?
Space research and exploration simply cannot exist without space biology. Obviously, spaceflight has profound effects on biological systems. Human health is no exception, so the field is looking for quick countermeasures to downstream biological effects of spaceflight. Other areas of space biology are less often discussed. Biological systems can be used for in-situ resource utilization, for instance, to mine and harvest resources on the Moon and other celestial bodies. One issue of interest in the field has to do with the fact that biological organisms often have expiry dates. As such, we’re looking for bioactive molecules or other methods of preservation and storage that don’t rely on refrigeration, since refrigeration is energy intensive and takes up space. Synthetic biomanufacturing will also likely play an important role in space exploration, as we will need it for diagnosis, bioactives, and therapeutics. We would love to be able to grow nutraceuticals in space. Humanity’s engagement in deep space will require the ability to grow nutrients, therapeutics, and diagnostic biomolecules as we need them.
Some people like to separate space biology into space medicine and space life science. With space medicine, the focus is concentrated on human health. In microgravity, fluids that used to be pulled downwards are redistributed upwards, resulting in changes in vision. Lack of gravity stresses results in bone loss and muscle atrophy. Lack of convection results in hypoxia and hypercapnia. Radiation affects our vision, cognition, cardiovascular function, and rates of cancer. Also, pathogens tend to show increased antimicrobial resistance in spaceflight. Being confined in a metal can far away from everyone else also affects our mood, the type of nutrition we consume, the type of healthcare we need, and our sleep cycles. Space medicine is really about identifying and learning about the human-focused issues in spaceflight.
Space life science focuses instead on food production, the environment, and biomaterials. Methods of food production, besides plants, are being researched. These can include algae, bacteria, and fungi. Regarding the environmental aspect, we bring a range of microbes with us into space, so we need to be careful with what we export. There’s also the use of microbes to tackle waste management and mineral extraction. Biomaterials are focused on what we can make, which includes architecture, tools, and human organs. There are some cool projects such as building houses with fungi. Just earlier this year, heart cells were bioprinted on the International Space Station. Space life science is about the things that we bring with us and the things we will need for everyday functions. By understanding what happens to biological organisms during spaceflight, we can better use organisms to our advantage.
How did you get into this field?
Back in high school, I wanted to be an astronomer and I would often go visit the Auckland Stardome. While I enjoyed looking at planets and their moons, I wasn’t sure if the work was for me. At university, I ended up pursuing biology because I wanted to bring back dinosaurs. To that end, I would talk to a professor in my spare time to better understand the sciences of archaeogenetics and embryology!
At some point, I thought perhaps I could reimagine my interest in space with biology. My lecturers let me shift my assignment topics to the field of space biology. Initially, I thought I should just get good grades and go overseas to pursue space research, but after analyzing a few papers, I realized that space biological research can be done in New Zealand. I just needed to find support for a project in space biology.
I first approached a physics supervisor, and he told me I needed a biology supervisor. After a number of rejections, I was able to secure a biology supervisor. An engineering supervisor came in at some point and followed up with some funding. What’s more inspiring than a locally grown endeavor? I’m extremely grateful for all the support that went into making my research project a reality.
What are your future plans?
The field of space biology is vast. There has been a lot of space biology research in lower Earth orbit, but little research beyond that. The greatest irony in sending biological organisms into space is that the research can be used to benefit society back here on Earth. Surprisingly, much of the value generated from space biotechnology is actually in Earth-based applications. I would say my focus would be on Earth applications and dual-use biotechnologies. Space biotechnologies often have a sustainability or human health side to them, so there would be huge benefits to New Zealand and society in general. There are many ways I can help foster the healthy development of space biotechnologies. To do so, I will need to foster deeper relations with the industry and the government.