B.C. scientist flying to Florida to retrieve his yeast from space

Click to play video: 'Microscopic yeast could guide the future of human space exploration'
Microscopic yeast could guide the future of human space exploration
WATCH: Researchers at the University of British Columbia are using yeast -- the same fungus that gives beer its kick and bread its bounce -- to study the genetic mutations caused by cosmic radiation during space travel. Paul Johnson reports – Dec 15, 2022

It’s a lot of pressure to place on yeast.

If humans are ever to live in space, beyond Earth’s protective magnetic field, scientists must understand and safeguard against the impacts of cosmic rays and near-zero gravity on living organisms.

“Our DNA will get damaged, we know that,” explained Dr. Corey Nislow, a pharmaceutical sciences professor at the University of British Columbia.

“Out last common ancestor with yeast was a billion years ago, (but) half of our genes operate in very much the same way, so by learning how cosmic radiation on those trips to the moon and beyond affects yeast genes, we can very rapidly extrapolate that information to human genes.”

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In mid-November, Nislow sent yeast and algae cultures into space for a trip around the moon. It was the first time in 50 years that biological materials left the Earth’s lower orbit to be exposed to space and later analyzed at the molecular level, he said.

The samples, placed in NASA’s Orion capsule, splashed into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, completing the Artemis 1 lunar mission, after three scrubbed launch attempts.

Nislow, relieved, will fly to Florida next week to retrieve them.

“The heat shield had never been tested before with samples aboard,” he explained. “So that heat shield got to about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 Celsius) … it looked pretty cooked up, but the interior of the capsule held just fine.”

Click to play video: 'Shooting for the moon: Experts encourage Canadian ‘moonshot projects’'
Shooting for the moon: Experts encourage Canadian ‘moonshot projects’

Studying the genetic changes to the yeast and algae could help researchers design better treatments for future space voyagers and cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, he told Global News.

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“We can learn what genes are affected in cosmic radiation and compare them to our database of 10,000 other environments we’ve studied here on Earth,” he explained.

“Within that data, we can find, are there treatments that we’ve learned will help on Earth to alleviate damage that occurs from cosmic radiation?”

If a permanent base becomes a reality on the moon, Nislow said he will be applying to have his yeast samples return, so they can be archived, tracked and maintained for as long as possible.

“They’ve put their time in and, equally important, this is the first set of yeast that went to the moon,” he said, affectionately branding his yeast as “the mutants.”

Nislow said he also doesn’t see a reason some of the yeast couldn’t be used to make beer.

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