Good seeds: Port Moody students look to sow healthier future for space travellers

It started in Port Moody with two young students, one committed teacher, and the seed of an idea.

Imagine the scene: the rocket is ready, the payload is managed and the shuttle’s course through the stars has been navigated. Everything’s ready. There’s one question left: do the astronauts have the stomach for this?

This spring, Port Moody Secondary Grade 9 students and friends J.E. Lee and Yong Lee will try to answer that question when their gut-health science experiment hitches a ride on a rocket bound for the International Space Station.

“We’re pretty shocked,” Yong says, explaining they almost didn’t submit the project. “We did not even think that we were going to make it to the top three. We just did this for fun.”

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Yong and J.E. had been friends in kindergarten. But, between going to different elementary schools and moving houses, they hadn’t seen each other for about seven years.

Then they found they were not only in the same school, they were also both in Marina Mehai’s science class. They decided to take on the project together.

“It was a reunion of sorts,” Mehai says.

After some early discussions, the friends started thinking about the health of astronauts.

“We found something a bit simpler and it was with bacteria,” J.E. says. “They produce a lot of beneficial compounds that affect us differently. We were wondering how they might change in space.”

The guts of the matter: a quick review

Space changes the astronaut.

Those weeks or months tripping the starlight fantastic can cause shifts in everything from an astronaut’s immune system to their neuro-behavioural function – both of which are tied to the gut microbiome.

Similar to a parent recognizing when their child needs a nap or is suffering hunger-induced crankiness, the gut microbiome can regulate processes of energy storage and appetite perception.

“The composition and functionality of the microbiome most likely changes during spaceflight,” concluded a scientific paper published by Frontiers in Physiology.

Most space travellers consume about 75 to 80 percent of their daily ration requirements, a shortfall associated with lower cognitive ability, a depleted immune system and more muscle atrophy, researchers found. In the case of longer space missions, that shortfall could lead to malnourishment, disease, and failed missions as astronauts are forced to come back early.

Supporting a healthy microbiome would help an astronaut during and after the mission, the study reasoned.

Small world: micro-organisms in microgravity

The experiment starts with a silicone tube, two clips, three chambers and chia seeds.

“They’re excellent dietary fibers that help to grow the beneficial bacteria in the microbiomes,” Yong explains of the chia seeds.

The seeds will hopefully reveal the effect of microgravity on the production of short-chain fatty acids which are crucial for a host of health benefits, Yong adds.

“The bacteria, they make vitamins that if you’re deficient in them they can make you waste away. They also create short chain fatty acids which do many things including . . . feeding the cells that line your intestines, epithelium cells, which also produce serotonin,” J.E. notes.

The bacteria could influence both the psychological and physiological health of astronauts, which could in turn influence just how long and how far astronauts can travel.

The entire experiment is confined to about 20 centimetres because, while space is infinite, the space aboard the shuttle is quite limited, Mehai notes.

photo supplied Ken Hoff, School District #43

Class act

With a lifelong interest in “that curiosity and wonder” of science, Mehai encourages her students to always ask questions.

Both students have a great appreciation for science. For J.E., whose mother was a science teacher, it’s the myriad interactions that can be found throughout nature.

“It’s kind of the core part that connects the world together and makes sense of it,” Yong agrees.

The selection of the experiment was lauded the School District #43 Board of Education.

“Not only is it the final choice for SD43, but it was the only Canadian experiment selected to be conducted on the [International Space Station],” stated board chair Michael Thomas in a release.

While a date has yet to be announced, the mission is tentatively slated to get off the ground this spring.

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