Lots of experiments filling up my days this past week – sorry I didn’t keep you updated much, but it’s really busy up here on humanity’s outpost in space!
Some experiments were old acquaintances, like “Circadian Rhythms”, and several were new entries, like ESA’s “Airway Monitoring”. I talked about this latter pretty extensively in my training logbooks, like for example in L-129.
For now, after some teething problems with the hardware (which is quite complex and partly used onboard for the first time), Terry and I got all the required data for the “normal” pressure session: in a few weeks we’ll perform the reduced pressure measurement, for which we will lock ourselves up in the airlock and lower the pressure around us.
You know, I don’t think that there any laboratory technicians on the planet who get to work on such a wide range of science as we do: I assume that all laboratories on Earth are more specialized and the scientists and technicians well trained on discipline-specific tasks! We, on the other hand, don’t have refined skills and wide experience on any of the science activities we perform: in some cases we’ve had a training session many months ago, in other cases we get some training onboard, like videos or slides.
And of course some astronauts have a background in experimental science, but they are not the majority: most of us rely on very detailed procedures and, for the most complex operations, on real-time support from the ground by the experiment developers and/or the investigators. Sometimes they only talk to us via the regular communicators on duty in the control centers, like the Eurocom for ESA activities, while sometimes they are even enabled to talk to us directly on a space-to-ground channel, which in that case is dedicated only to them.
My own background in science is limited – what you get with an engineering degree – and if I had chosen an education in science, instead of engineering, it would have been physics, so even then I would have hardly had a chance to work with cell cultures and multi-generational experiments on fruit flies and worms. And I’m not sure that I would be cut for it as my full-time job – it probably requires more patience than I possess – but I do have a lot of fun working on these experiments here on ISS!
For example, on Monday I got to work again on the experiment “Epigenetics”. My little friends in this case are not fruit flies, but another animal commonly used in research as a model for larger organisms: a millimeter-long worm called Caenorhabditis Elegans, for friends C. Elegans. And just like with the fruit flies, we want them to make babies: a total of four generations will grow onboard and specimen of each generation (adults and larvae) will be preserved in the freezer for return.
Dragon brought up the C.Elegans in starter syringes and I injected them into culture bags last week to start incubation. Then on Monday I extracted the babies using a special syringe equipped with a filter, that would not let the bigger adult worms go through. The first generation adults remained in the original culture bag and were frozen, while I inserted the second generation babies into another culture bag to let them further incubate. The purpose of the experiment, as the name suggests, is to study inherited epigenetic changes: that means changes in gene expression, but not in the DNA itself. Let’s put it this way: the environment cannot change the genes in your DNA, but it can affect how your genes are expressed, or “activated”. The worms will adapt to weightlessness and that will cause changes in their gene expression, so the question is: how, if at all, will these changes be inherited by the offspring?
Fascinating, isn’t it?