The Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology

Project Summary


‘CONSTELLATION’, NASA’s mission to explore the surface of the moon, includes a manned moon base. More research needs to be done on the effects of altered gravity on cellular morphology and metabolism to make this a safe reality for the astronauts involved. Since research we completed at the 2008 Microgravity University showed an increase in DNA and chromosomal damage under conditions of hypergravity and microgravity, more experimentation needs to be done to confirm these results and determine if they are due to increased uptake of damaging ions and particles or a decrease in the efficiency of repair mechanisms during periods of altered gravity. The results of this inquiry will tell us more specifically how altered gravity effects DNA and chromosomes and how they become more susceptible to chemically-induced damage as a result. This research is useful because occupational exposure levels for astronauts working in altered gravity may need to be adjusted from the acceptable levels on Earth and this research will help determine those levels. Future research will be based on counteracting the increased damage that cells experience in altered gravity. This may be done using nutraceutical therapies recently found to block some carcinogenic mechanisms or through use of a bowhead whale cell line that has proven to be resistant to chemically-induced DNA damage.


In 2004, the President announced a "Vision for U.S. Space Exploration," which will take us back to the Moon and beyond. The plan included the development of a permanent manned moon base, with trips lasting up to six months for the purposes of exploring the surface of the Moon, learning more about the history of the Earth and the Solar System, and eventually sending astronauts to Mars. It has been observed that microgravity causes changes in the morphology of cells, and results in the loss of muscle and bone mass. Based on this information, we hypothesize that normal cell function will change in microgravity and hypergravity such that toxic chemicals have a greater damaging effect on cells and DNA. To test this hypothesis, we will study cells treated with chemicals known to damage DNA (lead chromate and sodium chromate) and an emerging public health concern (silver nanoparticles) on human lung cells in hyper- and microgravity. The results from these experiments will show us if there are differences in cellular uptake of chemicals, the amount of DNA damage induced by chemicals, or effects on damage repair in microgravity and hypergravity. Thus, in addition to providing an excellent educational opportunity for us as students, if the tests prove there is a harmful difference, the results will have the added benefit of providing NASA with information necessary to consider steps to reduce the possibility of exposure toward toxic chemicals while astronauts are in microgravity. We would then take the experiments further to test the effects of other chemicals such as lunar dusts in microgravity, to which astronauts traveling to the moon will be exposed.