NASA shot yeast into space. The science could help protect astronauts, researchers say

A short trip to space for some yeast samples could have the potential to be a giant scientific leap for mankind after an experimental collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and researchers at the University of British Columbia.

When NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission shot its first rocket into space just before 2 am on Nov. 16, it left Cape Canaveral, Fla., with a shoe box-size pod filled with samples of yeast and algae as part of a project led by UBC pharmaceutical sciences professor Corey Nislow.

the goal?

To see how those samples which returned to earth on Dec. 11, fared while exposed to cosmic radiation. Yeast have a similar genetic makeup to humans.

The ultimate end game is to find a way to protect astronauts — and potential members of future space colonies — from the same harmful rays.

“By 2030 I know NASA has plans for a permanent settlement on the moon,” said Nislow, speaking to CBC’s As It Happens Wednesday.

UBC pharmaceutical sciences researcher Corey Nislow clutches one of the yeast samples he and his Vancouver-based research team sent to space on the Artemis 1 Lunar Mission at the end of 2022. (Justine Beaulieu-Poudrier/CBC News)

NASA’s Artemis mission, which the Canadian Space Agency is contributing to, does intend to send humans to the moon by that year.

Nislow believes the samples he hand-carried home from Florida after their trip to the final frontier have huge potential to help scientists devise a way to keep people safe in space.

Nislow said yeast and algae have about 70 per cent of the same genes as people, including the RAD51 gene that is essential for making a protein to repair DNA.

WATCH | Lead researcher discusses potential outcomes of sending yeast to space:

Corey Nislow discusses how his yeast samples could help space exploration

UBC scientist Corey Nislow explains how his research could yield a drug to help astronauts.

There is potential, said Nislow, that scientists could glean enough information from the samples to create a drug that would deliver extra RAD51 MRNA to people going to space and keep them safe.

“So we’ve genetically-equipped these astronauts without changing their DNA,” he said, referring to COVID-19 vaccines as successful examples of MRNA delivery.

Test tubes are shown in a lab.
Nislow shows off his yeast and algae samples at the University of British Columbia on Jan. 11. (Justine Beaulieu-Poudrier/CBC News)

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, former commander at the International Space Station (ISS), has experienced the impact of cosmic radiation first-hand.

He says the earth’s magnetic field protects human flesh from radiation off the sun and stars, but when you get above the atmosphere you lose the majority of that protection.

Hadfield said when you close your eyes in a spaceship, you see flashes of light due to the radiation coming through your optic nerve.

“If we want to live somewhere else … we need to somehow come up with a way to protect ourselves from the natural radiation that exists everywhere else in the universe.”

WATCH | Radiation woes recounted by former space explorer:

Former ISS commander Chris Hadfield on the dangers of cosmic radiation

The Canadian astronaut says you can see it penetrating your body.

Astronauts have their radiation levels monitored during missions, said Hadfield, and the exposure limits how long they can stay in space.

When the Artemis 1 mission launched in November, Canada’s Innovation Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced a Canadian astronaut will be on board Artemis II as part of a crew set to travel to the moon’s orbit in 2024.

It will be the first time a Canadian will travel to deep space.

“We want to try and keep them healthy,” said Hadfield about that pending mission. “If we can find a way to reduce that risk it will make all of space flight easier.”

He said decades ago, people did not have the technology to stay alive in the Antarctica and now, there are hundreds of people doing research in the region.

“Now, we are on the cusp of doing that on the moon,” said Hadfield. “It’s an amazing time in history that all of this is happening.”

It will take some time, said Nislow, before he has any results to share from the samples.

The DNA must first be extracted, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing done and the genes sequenced and compared with samples that did not leave the atmosphere.

There is also potential, he said, that the samples could help scientists find ways to improve radiation treatment for cancer patients.

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