What do gut bacteria and outer space have in common? More than you might think. Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are currently studying how space travel and zero-gravity living affect the trillions of microbes living in and around the digestive tract—many of which play a role in optimal digestion and health.
As part of the ongoing Microbiome experiment, participating crew members will provide blood, saliva, and gastrointestinal samples to help researchers assess the status of their bacterial populations before, during, and after space flight. Immune health and stress levels will also be monitored, along with the impact of nutrition and diet on the ISS.
Knowing that extreme environments can cause changes in bacterial populations, scientists hope to understand more about the impact of those changes on human health. For example, can long-term space travel deplete our stores of good bacteria and leave us vulnerable to infection and poor health? Answering this and other questions may help future astronauts as well as people who live and work in similar environments here on Earth.
And speaking of astronauts and gut health, a new study published in this month’s FASEB Journal suggests that extreme conditions like living in zero gravity may lead to a higher risk of developing inflammatory bowel diseases. When mice were subjected to an environment similar to that experienced during space travel, both gut bacteria balance and immune function were altered significantly, resulting in colitis (inflammation of the large intestine, or bowel).