By Ezra Remer

This past summer Stamps Scholar Alumnus Zach Cowden (University of Illinois ’14) interned in the Astro-omics lab at the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) headquarters in Houston, TX under the mentorship of Dr. Virginia Wotring. His internship involved a project set out to investigate the effects of space radiation on gene expression in mammalian tissue. According to Cowden, “Space radiation is very different in composition from other types of ionizing radiation found here on Earth, and one of the only facilities that can come close to simulating space radiation is the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. The Astro-omics lab was able to obtain tissue from rats exposed to this simulated radiation for our study. We extracted RNA molecules from these tissues as well as from rats not exposed to radiation. Specific strands of RNA are produced in the cell that correlate to specific genes. By measuring the quantity of certain RNA molecules, we are able to obtain a good approximation of the level of expression of the related gene. When we compare results between irradiated rats and normal rats, we can see how the simulated space radiation exposure changed gene expression relative to baseline levels.  We looked at a set of genes having roles in bodily functions such as drug metabolism, circadian rhythm (body’s internal clock), and DNA repair. Drug metabolism was targeted because we want to know if the way the body processes drugs is different in space, and circadian rhythm because astronauts have historically had much trouble maintaining normal sleep cycles while in space. Finally, DNA repair genes were looked at because ionizing radiation is known to damage DNA, and we want to examine how the cell changes expression of DNA repair genes in response. The hope is that our findings can be extrapolated to help predict how space radiation could be affecting gene expression in the human body… NASA is particularly concerned about space radiation, especially with plans to send humans to Mars in the near future, because the amount of space radiation that an astronaut would receive on a journey to Mars far exceeds current safety limits. Studies such as these can begin to better define and quantify the risks of space radiation and help guide the direction of necessary safeguards that allow humans to continue the safe exploration of our solar system.”

We asked Cowden a few questions about the innovative work he did during his internship:

How did you begin to get involved in the NSBRI program? Was there a lengthy interviewing process?
I had always been interested in the science of space exploration, but never thought I could actually be involved in it. When I thought of space I typically thought about engineers designing rockets and spaceships. The truth is that now more than ever, a lot of the problems holding us back from sending a manned mission to Mars are biological rather than technical in nature. Early this year, I happened upon the NSBRI website and thought it was fascinating that there was an entire organization of scientists working on the biomedical side of space exploration. I saw a posting for their Space Biomedical Science and Engineering Apprenticeship and decided to apply. A few weeks later I had the opportunity to interview and talk with some of the scientists at NSBRI headquarters so they could get an idea of my background and research interests. I was contacted soon after with an offer to work in the Astro-omics lab, and started making plans to spend my summer in Houston!

What aspect or division of the NSBRI program did you work in?
I worked in the Astro-omics lab at the NSBRI headquarters in Houston. The NSBRI headquarters is located in the Texas Medical Center, a short drive away from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The NSBRI is directed by Dr. Jeffrey P. Sutton, and the Science Department, where Cowden interned, is led by Dr. Graham Scott. The NSBRI was created by NASA in 1997 and is a collaboration of academic institutions from across the country with the goal of solving biomedical challenges related to space exploration. The Astro-omics lab is one of several labs located at the NSBRI headquarters. It focuses on changes in “omics” related to spaceflight (genomics, metabolomics, proteomics) – (any changes to your DNA, its expression patterns, and metabolic markers.

Did you work with any new technologies? Is there any particular piece of cutting edge technology or gadget that you feel holds promise for the future?
I worked with mostly standard biology lab technologies in the scope of my project. However, there was another lab at NSBRI called the Exploration Medicine lab that was working on 3D-printing biomedical supplies such as casts and surgical tools. Since every pound launched to space costs a tremendous amount of money, scientists hope that they can save weight by sending a 3D-printer that can print emergency supplies only if necessary.

How do you feel this experience shaped your relationship to Biology or the human condition in general?
Great question! This really was an amazing experience and definitely changed the way I think about biology as a profession. There are SO many different routes you can take with a background in biology, and doing space research is never one that I would have expected. This year I started a master’s degree in biotechnology at Northwestern University, and one of the projects I’m working on is again space-related. We’re going to be looking at the feasibility of biomanufacturing in space, which is a similar concept to that of sending up a 3D-printer. We might one day be able to send astronauts with a small batch of microbes that could be used to produce a variety of useful chemicals on-demand, including medicine, edible ingredients, or even rocket fuel. Biotechnologists are constantly finding ways to produce new goods that can’t be made efficiently with traditional chemical engineering methods. If we can extend these biomanufacturing capabilities to astronauts on, for example, a mission to Mars, we could significantly cut down some of the launch weight and enable explorers to be less reliant on the initial batch of supplies launched from Earth. It’s a very exciting prospect, and I continue to be amazed that biology research can have such out of this world applications!

As for thoughts on the “human condition”, this internship really did change my perspective on some things. We spent a lot of time learning about all of the different ways microgravity and the space environment in general affect the human body. Much of it boils down to the fact that after having evolved over countless years on Earth, humans are very ill-equipped to survive anywhere outside of its protective bubble. It makes you realize how fragile life is, and how small of a place we occupy compared to the vastness of space. I thought it was also super encouraging to see so many bright-minded and motivated people working to overcome these problems and allow humans to keep pushing the boundaries of exploration. Our generation has the chance to send humans to Mars for the first time, and I think it’s a really exciting time to be alive.

Fun Question: Were you personally able to experience any hallmark astronaut training activities (zero-gravity, astronaut food, etc)? If so, did you have a favorite activity?
There were a couple of cool things we had the chance to do. One of my favorite parts was a behind-the-scenes tour at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. We were allowed inside the mission control room where the Apollo missions were directed from and even got to sit down at the old control consoles!  We also got a tour of the neutral buoyancy lab, which is basically a giant hypersaline pool where astronauts suit up and train for spacewalks.

(Apologies for the cliché question here) Personally, do you believe that humanity will ever be able to sustain life on another planet? If so how long do you believe it will take us to reach that point?
Right now there are people like Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX wants to send people to Mars within the next decade, who believe we can have a self-sustaining colony on Mars before the end of this century. It’s an interesting prospect, and one that I do think is possible, though I would imagine it to be at least partially reliant on Earth and not completely “self-sustaining” for some time. Personally I think there are still some major hurdles to overcome before we have people living full lives on another planet, though I definitely expect to see manned missions to Mars starting in the next 15-20 years. Many of the dangers on Mars can be overcome by living indoors in environmentally-controlled habitats and mining resources, but some of the biggest problems will be the ones we can’t control very well, namely radiation and gravity. Mars has a very thin atmosphere and still receives a significant amount of space radiation. It’s also less massive than Earth and only has about 1/3 of the gravity. Scientists don’t all agree on the danger these factors could pose to humans, and more research is needed to determine the effects. However, a lot of that research will have to be done on Mars itself since it’s very difficult to replicate those conditions elsewhere, so I would expect to see a lot of the research from early missions guiding the rate of future exploration and possible settlement.