Rodents on rockets

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A team of eight musclebound “Mighty Mice” blasted off for the International Space Station (ISS) last night on a mission that could lead to scientific breakthroughs in human health.

The creatures, named after the American animated superhero Mighty Mouse, have been genetically engineered to lack myostatin, a protein that limits muscle growth. The change allows their skeletal muscle mass to reach twice the size seen in ordinary mice, making them the Rambos of the rodent world.

They will be used in studies that will help scientists to gain a better understanding of how to prevent muscle and bone loss in astronauts — caused by the effects of microgravity — and in elderly or bedbound people back on Earth or those with muscle-wasting conditions.

“I’m old enough to have watched Mighty Mouse as a kid and there’s a theme song with the words ‘Here I come to save the day, Mighty Mouse is on the way.’ That’s what we have happening here,” said Se-Jin Lee, who created the mice at the Jackson Laboratory at the University of Connecticut. He discovered myostatin in 1997.

“This work has important implications for astronaut health in the future but also for people on earth with conditions where muscle and bone loss is a serious problem,” he said yesterday.

m2The myostatin-free mice are among a group of 40 being sent aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule that launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral air force station in Florida. The capsule is carrying 2,617kg (5,769lb) of supplies and equipment for the astronauts aboard the ISS, which orbits the earth at an altitude of 220 miles. It is due to dock on Sunday.

Included in the cargo is a commercial experiment for the brewing company Anheuser-Busch, which is testing the malting capabilities of barley seeds in microgravity with a view to eventually making beer in space.

Mice are regular guests on the ISS for scientific and medical research projects, because their biology and physiology is similar to that of humans and they have a relatively straightforward upkeep. Mark Kelly, a former commander of the ISS, paid tribute to their contribution in two children’s books about a rodent superhero named Meteor, a so-called “mousetronaut”.

Professor Lee said: “Everybody, especially kids, can get interested in science when there’s something relatable involved.

“The mice provide an enormous opportunity to get the public engaged and get kids motivated to pursue careers in aerospace engineering, in science and medicine.”

The mice now on their way to the orbiting laboratory will return to Earth in 40 days. Some are myostatin-free, others are myostatin-enabled.

By studying how their bones and muscles are affected in microgravity, scientists can extrapolate findings that could be applied in future towards minimising some of the risks of long-term space travel, including voyages to Mars which might take years.

Nasa intends to send crews to the Red planet in the 2030s.

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