Fruit Fly Experiments Help Prepare Next Generation of NASA Scientists
Today, NASA is conducting one of its most vital missions ever: to prepare a new generation of scientists to help NASA meet the challenges of space travel.
Scientists in the Space Biosciences Research and Experimental Aero-Physics branches at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., are collaborating with the American Society for Gravitational Space Research to encourage students to pursue educational disciplines critical to NASA’s future engineering, scientific and technical missions. This student-led experiment is destined to be performed on the International Space Station in 2013. Leading up to that flight experiment in the weightless environment of space, the students are performing tests on the ground to refine their experiment’s design and apparatus, and gather data in a greater-than-Earth’s gravity (“hypergravity”) environment.
Starting in 2011, student interns at Ames contributed to a hands-on, real-time bioscience research project for the advancement of human space exploration. Interns were teamed with Principal Investigators Sharmila Bhattacharya and Jeffrey Smith in the Ames’ Space Bioscience Research Branch, and Kurt Long, Rabi Mehta and Steven Schery in the Experimental Aero-Physics Branch, to research the behavioral effects of hypergravity on fruit fly flight patterns. The object of the study is to understand the neurobehavioral connection of the fruit fly and see how its brain helps it to adapt to an altered gravity environment.
According to Bhattacharya, fruit flies make ideal research candidates. Fruit fly genetic behavior is well understood; their genome can be easily manipulated; and they share similar genes with humans, including 70 per cent of the same disease-causing genes. As Bhattacharya explains, "The advantage from the flies is that we have a model system that can give evidence of similar changes in humans."
On July 25, 2012, several student scientists worked together in the NASA Ames 20G Centrifuge to secure a centrifuge apparatus to test flies at various gravitational forces of 5G, 3G, 1.03G and 1G. Intern Eduardo Flores. Flores, majoring in optical engineering at the Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí in Mexico, constructed the centrifuge apparatus to include a duplex habitat, mirror, GoPro Hero2 camera and be capable of withstanding three times the force of 8G hypergravity. The experiment was repeated on Sept 5, 6 and 7, 2012 and intern Ivan Lucatero, majoring in aerospace engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Calif., further optimized this experimental set-up by improving the lighting, optics and imaging.
Erin Weisenhorn, biochemistry major from Reed College, Portland Ore., and Brianna Hagen, biology major from San Jose State University, San Jose Calif., raised colonies of both wild type and mutant fruit flies to use in the experiment. As biologists, they are responsible for growing the fruit fly populations, ensuring the biocompatibility and habitability of the fly habitat and at the conclusion of the centrifuge testing, ensuring the flies are healthy, and that all are accounted for. Weisenhorn also is helping analyze the data from mutant and wild type flies at the different g-levels.
The students designed their test to simulate the conditions of a NASA flight experiment. During their runs in the 20G centrifuge, they answered questions about their centrifuge apparatus regarding computer memory, battery life, the ease of analyzing data, and confirmation of correct camera angles.
“You only get one chance at doing it in space and you want to make sure everything works,” explained Bhattacharya.
The students identified elements they could improve, so when it comes time for space flight, their experiment will be ready for lift off. The second set of data will come from testing in a microgravity environment. That experiment will rocket into flight next year, taking its place in the NanoRacks on a SpaceX Dragon flight (has this been confirmed/verified by Space X?) to the International Space Station.
Emily Lomax, a mechanical engineering major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, programmed the software to capture still frames of the video footage, locate the fruit flies, and capture their flight for data analysis. She will process this data and report the final conclusions. By examining the behavior of fruit flies in hypergravity, these students hope to lay the groundwork that contributes to the health of astronauts during long explorations in space.
While NASA is interested in the results of behavioral effects of hypergravity on fruit flies, it is equally interested in strengthening NASA’s and the nation’s future workforce. By providing access to cutting-edge laboratories, accomplished mentors, and real world scientific applications, NASA hopes to develop a new generation of experts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and recruit the best young scientists to join the team at NASA.
Weisenhorn believes it is working. Despite wrangling fruit flies for the NASA centrifuge at 5:30 in the morning, she says the program has been, “an amazing research experience. I plan to stay in the same field when I graduate.”
Student team members:
Erin Weisenhorn - Reed College, Portland, Biochemistry
Eduardo Flores Aguirre - Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo León (UANL), Mexico, Aeronautical Engineering
Emily Lomax – University of California, Santa Barbara, Mechanical Engineering
Brianna Hagen – San Jose State University, Biological Sciences
Ivan Lucatero – Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Aerospace Engineering
Danika Kusuma – Oregon State University, Pharmacy (Pharm D.)
Ines Hernandez Villarreal – UANL, Aeronautical Engineering
Yuly Wung – University of Michigan, Aerospace Engineering
Anushka Prabhakar - California State University, Long Beach, Aerospace Engineer
Elizabeth Coffee – University of Houston, Biomedical Engineering
Laura Chen - University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Engineering Mechanics and Illinois State University, Physics
Travis Schuh Franklin W. – Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, Needham, Mass., Mechanical Engineering
Jeffrey Smith and Sharmila Bhattacharya in Ames' Space Biosciences Research Branch
Kurt Long, Steve Schery, and Rabi Mehta in Ames' Experimental Aero-Physics Branch