In December, a SpaceX rocket launched a spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS),media reported. There were many things on board, but the most precious cargo was a group of 40 mice. Not all of these mice were born the same, as some of them were genetically reinforced to maximize their muscle mass.
It was a simple experiment to test whether the genetically reinforced “giant rats” maintained their muscle mass and compared them to those in the control group. The researchers speculated that the mice in the control group would lose a lot of muscle due to the effects of microgravity. In space, mice in some control groups received the same treatment as mice on Earth. Now that the mice have returned to Earth, the results are quite surprising.
The researchers’ latest report, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that mice that had under been treated for muscle before launch were not only as strong as they were when they left, but also had larger muscles when they returned from space than when they left. Untreated mice lost up to 18 percent of their muscle and bone mass, the researchers said.
This may seem like a strange experiment, but it has real implications for the future of human space travel. We know that humans tend to lose a lot of muscle in space life. ISS has a number of resistance-based exercise devices that can help astronauts build muscle on their journey to orbital laboratories, but these space travelers will inevitably be weaker when they return than they are when they leave.
Looking ahead, perhaps one day humans will travel to Mars or beyond, when humans will need a better way to keep travelers muscled during their journeys. No one wants to stumble on the surface of Mars after months of space travel. This is where the treatment that mice receive can work for humans, but only if it turns out to be safe.
It’s 10 years or more before humans embark on a journey beyond the moon, so scientists still have time to solve the problem.