NASA Is Sending A Lot Of Sperm To The ISS To See If We Can Make Babies In Space

Bovine sperm viewed under a microscope so that researchers can determine if the acrosome reaction (which helps prepare sperm cells for fertilization of an egg) has occurred in each cell. The University of Kansas/Joseph Tash

Madison Dapcevich 10 Apr 2018, 10:14

Space does some weird things to the human body. Astronauts grow tallermuscles atrophy, and bones lose their density and strength. Little is known about the biology of human reproduction in space, and NASA says their latest mission aims to change that.

Launched at the start of the month on SpaceX's Dragon cargo craft, the Micro-11 mission sent frozen human and bull sperm to the International Space Station (ISS) to see how weightlessness affects the little swimmers.

“We don’t know yet how long-duration spaceflight affects human reproductive health, and this investigation would be the first step in understanding the potential viability of reproduction in reduced-gravity conditions,” NASA said.  

It’s not the first time scientists have set out to see how the great beyond affects the little guys. In 1988, German researcher U Englemann first sent bull sperm into orbit aboard a European Space Agency rocket and found that gravity affected their motility (movement). 

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, a crew member of Expedition 49 aboard the International Space Station, works on an experiment inside the station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox, a sealed environment for conducting science and technology experiments. The Micro-11 experiment will be conducted using this hardware. NASA

The fertilization process begins with a chemical reaction called phosphorylation, when an enzyme changes the functioning of a protein within a cell and allows activity to happen. In this case, the tails of sperm move to propel it forward.

On Earth, the tail movement stops when a second enzyme called phosphatase kicks in, but in microgravity, the second enzymes don’t work the same. In previous experiments with sea urchin and bull sperm, NASA says this activation happens more quickly in microgravity, while “the steps leading up to fusion happen more slowly, or not at all.” These delays or issues could prevent fertilization from happening in eggs.

Because gravity causes every object to pull every other object toward it, previous research on microgravity – sometimes called weightlessness or zero gravity – has shown that too much or too little gravity can change how a sperm behaves.

This time around, frozen samples of bull and human sperm will make their way to the ISS. Once aboard, the samples will be thawed and added to a chemical mixture that will trigger activation. Because bull sperm is more consistent in motion and appearance than human sperm, astronauts can deduce whether any recorded strange behavior is a result of something unusual about the sperm sample, or if it is indeed an effect from microgravity.

The samples will then be mixed with preservatives and sent back to Earth. Here, scientists will see whether the “steps necessary for fusion occurred and whether the samples from space differ from those activated on the ground.”

Sperm samples for the Micro-11 experiment arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, where the researchers prepared them for launch to the International Space Station. NASA

 

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