Recently astronaut Scott Kelly returned home from space. It was the longest trip ever completed by an American astronaut, and researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois are eager to see how the 340 days in orbit affected his body—in particular his gut.
The Northwestern group is one of 10 teams involved in an extensive study designed to examine the effects of space travel on the human body. Their specific focus is on the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, and now that Kelly is home they will compare nearly a year’s worth of blood and fecal matter samples collected while Kelly was living on the International Space Station to those of his twin brother Mark, who remained on earth.
Why study the gut? The trillions of microbes taking up residence in the gut are closely linked to immune health, and researchers were curious to see if extended time in space leaves the body more vulnerable to illness and disease because of the impact on our intestinal bacteria. They also hope to understand more about the link between gut microbes and mood, pointing out that astronauts’ mental health is just as important for survival in space. “We just want to know what it takes to keep people healthy in space for that long,” said NU neurobiology professor Martha Vitaterna.
Kelly was in space for nearly a year, during which time he took part in hundreds of different experiments studying the effects of long-term space travel on everything from cardiovascular health to on sleep and circadian rhythms. While it may take months or even years to analyze all the data, NU researchers look forward to seeing what new information Kelly’s gut bacteria will reveal.