520-day simulated Mars mission changes crew’s gut bacteria

After completing a 520-day simulated trip to Mars, the longest confinement ever conducted, the Mars500 crew showed significant changes in their gut microbiota. (Credit: Nicolas Lobos/Unsplash)

Crew members who took part in the Mars500 mission experiment showed significant changes in their gut microbiota after 520 days in confinement, according to a new study.

The researchers analyzed data from fecal samples of six crew members from Russia, Europe, and China.

The crew lived in a completely sealed habitat in Moscow from June 2010 to November 2011 to simulate a manned mission to Mars, which international space agencies hope to make in the 2030s. Their confinement was the longest ever conducted with humans under controlled conditions.

The goal: to test the impact of living cut off from the world on physiological and psychological health. Previous studies have shown that, in the end, all six crew members emerged with major alterations in their body mass, muscle strength, and other indicators.

The discovery of microbiome alterations represents a missing link between these symptoms and deepens scientists’ understanding of how well astronauts will be able to work in and recover from long-duration spaceflight, as well as how humans generally interact with their habitats.

Major disruptions in metabolism

Besides suffering significant losses of body mass and muscle strength after they emerged from confinement, the Mars500 crew showed major prediabetic disruptions in their glucose metabolism, a symptom often seen after extended space flight.

For the study, researchers used newly developed genomic technology to identify several microbiome changes in the crew, including losses of beneficial gut bacteria that normally degrade resistant starch, improve nutrient absorption, and prevent intestinal inflammation.

The analysis also discovered that long confinement seemed to increase a number of gut bacteria only recently discovered in humans and whose significance for human health is not yet properly understood.

“We have to be careful not to assume a causal relationship between the gut microbiome changes and the disruption of crew metabolism,” says lead author Nicholas Brereton, a research fellow at the Université de Montreal (UdeM) Institut de recherche en biologie végétale.

“The significant reduction in these particular gut bacteria do make sense with the symptoms and identification of significant microbiome changes is an important step towards safeguarding astronaut health”.

“What we’re intrigued by is the significant increase of specific unknown microbial species which have been observed in other recent studies using advanced metagenomic technologies but are still somewhat of a mystery,” says coauthor Frédéric Pitre, a biologist at UdeM.

Shared microbiome changes

Deterioration in astronauts’ musculoskeletal and metabolic health is known to be a major risk factor in space flight, and the effect is expected to be magnified in longer duration missions such as during a manned mission to Mars.

For their study, the researchers developed high-resolution genomics techniques to precisely identify and quantify gut microbiome species—and eventually found over 200 were shared between the crew.

“Substantial parts of the human microbiome are highly unique to each individual, much like any other ecosystem, but there are also important gut bacteria common across individuals,” says senior author Emmanuel Gonzalez, a metagenomic specialist at McGill University’s Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity.

“Assessing the microbiome in very high-resolution allowed us to observe these significant shared changes in the Mars500 crew that were not previously seen,” says Gonzalez, who is also associated with McGill’s Canadian Centre for Computational Genomics.

The study, published in Computational and Structural Biotechnology Journal, received funding from the Canadian Space Agency and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Source: McGill University