It is being said that space does some weird things to the human body when in space, including growing taller, muscles atrophy, and bones losing their density and strength. However, scientists have said that little is currently known about the biology of reproduction in space. And so as an attempt to address that and to see if human reproduction is possible in space, NASA has launched a new mission called Micro-11.
Managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, Micro-11 mission was launched at the start of the month to study how weightlessness affects sperm.
“We don’t know yet how long-duration spaceflight affects human reproductive health, and this investigation would be the first step in understanding the potential viability of reproduction in reduced-gravity conditions,” NASA said.
The fertilization process, in mammals, including humans, occurs when a sperm cell swims toward an egg and fuses with it. But before this can happen, the sperm cell must be activated to start moving. And to prepare it for fusing with the egg, the sperm needs to move faster, and its cell membrane must become more fluid. However, NASA has said that, in previous experiments with sea urchin and bull sperm, this activation happens more quickly in microgravity, while the steps leading up to fusion happen more slowly, or not at all. And these delays or problems could prevent fertilization from happening in space. Previous research on microgravity has shown that too much or too little gravity can change how a sperm behaves.
For the experiment, the Micro-11 will send frozen human and bull sperm to the International Space Station (ISS) to see how weightlessness affects the little swimmers.
This is because as bull sperm is more consistent in motion and appearance than the human sperm, astronauts can deduce whether any recorded strange behavior is a result of something unusual about the sperm sample, or if it is indeed an effect from microgravity.
Explaining the process, NASA has said that once aboard, the astronaut crew will thaw the samples and add chemical mixtures that trigger activation of sperm movement and preparation for fusing with an egg. And researchers will use video to assess how well the space sperm move. Finally, the samples will be mixed with preservatives and sent back to Earth, where they’ll be analyzed to see whether the steps necessary for fusion occurred and whether the samples from space differ from sperm samples activated on the ground.
Needless to mention, this is not the first time scientists have set out to see how the great beyond affects the little guys. In 1988, German researcher U Englemann first sent bull sperm into orbit aboard a European Space Agency rocket and found that gravity affected their motility (movement).