Space Travel Orbits Mitochondria’s Central Role into the Spotlight

Published on January 8, 2021

The scientific community has long validated the significance of mitochondria as our cell’s ‘energy factory,’ but the much more central role that these membrane-bound cell organelles play in health and disease has now come into the global spotlight with NASA’s breakthrough study published in Cell.  This study, a collaboration between NASA and leading researchers, analyzed the largest cohort of astronaut biomedical data to-date to better understand the negative effects of spaceflight on human physiology and health. And, its conclusions were very surprising.

“We’ve found a universal mechanism that explains the kinds of changes we see to the body in space, and in a place, we didn’t expect,” said Afshin Beheshti the lead author on the paper and a researcher with KBR, which provides contract support to NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Everything gets thrown out of whack and it all starts with the mitochondria.”

“Mitochondrial dysregulation is driving spaceflight health risks,” according to the publication’s authors, da Silveira et al. Researchers analyzed biomedical profiles from fifty-nine astronauts and data from NASA’s GeneLab derived from hundreds of samples flown in space.  “Overall pathway analyses on the multi-omics datasets showed significant enrichment for mitochondrial processes, as well as innate immunity, chronic inflammation, cell cycle, circadian rhythm, and olfactory functions.

Importantly, NASA’s Twin Study provided a platform to confirm several of our principal findings. Evidence of altered mitochondrial function and DNA damage was also found in the urine and blood metabolic data compiled from the astronaut cohort and NASA Twin Study data, indicating mitochondrial stress as a consistent phenotype of spaceflight.”

Thanks to NASA’s pioneering study, space travelers, as well as the billions of us who remain on Planet Earth, are introduced to the wonders of mitochondria. So, what exactly are mitochondria? Mitochondria are generally understood to be the powerhouses of our cells and responsible for converting nutrients into energy. Mitochondria evolved and originated by endosymbiosis when a bacterium was captured by a eukaryotic cell millions of years ago. They brought along their own DNA, 200,000 times smaller than the cell’s DNA and inherited maternally, rather than from both parents. A typical human cell has thousands of them inside its walls, producing over 90% of the energy that the cell needs to function.

Mitochondrial Dysfunction on the Ground

Unfortunately, mitochondrial dysregulation doesn’t only occur in space. An estimated 1 in 5000 people have genetic defects which can result in mitochondrial dysfunction and life-threatening illnesses, but a far greater population develops it during their lifetime from aging, lifestyle behaviors, toxins, drug side-effects, or other diseases. Mitochondrial dysfunction is strongly associated with a very wide range of highly prevalent diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, liver disease, cancer, neurological diseases, and immune and inflammatory disorders, as well as increased comorbidity and mortality. And, in turn, these diseases are responsible for a majority of deaths annually, excluding accidents. So, it’s not surprising, once the study identified mitochondrial dysfunction in its astronaut subjects, that so many of their body’s earth-normal functions and their health would also be impaired.

Mitochondria are just that important to human biology and to healthy lifespan. It’s more surprising that a group of astronauts, in peak physical condition with a healthy diet and regular exercise, would all develop dysfunction so quickly, when it typically takes many years and an unhealthy lifestyle on the ground. Maybe the lack of gravity in space, for mitochondria used to working 24/7 even when we’re sleeping to keep our hearts pumping, has an effect similar to a sedentary lifestyle on the ground, a known contributor to mitochondrial dysfunction?

Mitochondrial Science and Medicine

It’s also not surprising, given the increasing awareness of the enormous impact on health and lifespan from mitochondrial dysfunction, that leading research scientists have been increasingly focused on mitochondria, to better understand how they perform their much more complex and central role in healthy people, how they become dysfunctional, and what can be done to prevent or correct the dysfunction. Among them are the founders of my company, CohBar, all internationally recognized scientific and medical experts in biology, genetics, aging, and mitochondrial science, who have spent the past two decades exploring mitochondrial genetics and biology, discovering new mitochondrial genes and mechanisms, and identifying opportunities for therapeutic drugs to address the huge unmet medical need. Expanding on their breakthrough discoveries, our scientists have been identifying and developing a growing number of Mitochondria Based Therapeutics, with significant potential to address diseases associated with mitochondrial dysfunction on the ground, as well as, perhaps, in space.

Steven B. Engle is Chief Executive Officer and Director of CohBar, Inc, a clinical stage biotechnology company developing mitochondria-based therapeutics to treat chronic diseases and extend healthy lifespan.

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