Burrowing Frog May Help Astronauts Get to Mars

The green-striped burrowing frog, Cyclorana alboguttata, occurs throughout Australia and can hibernate for months without suffering any muscle wastage, during which they go underground and wrap themselves in a cocoon of shed skin when resources are scarce in the outback. Recent research, from the University of Queensland, suggests that the mechanisms used by the frog may solve the problem of astronauts maintaining muscle in zero gravity, a major issue that needs to be overcome before missions to Mars can be undertaken. It may also help bedridden patients overcome muscle wastage.

In space maintaining muscle mass is difficult, due to the absence of gravity working in a spacecraft is physically undemanding. Meaning very little muscle contraction is required to support astronauts bodies, so muscles weaken and deteriorate, known as atrophy. Studies have shown that astronauts experience up to a 20 percent loss of muscle mass on spaceflights lasting five to 11 days.

 

The research, published in the journal of the Society for Experimental Biology, has identified two key genes that help burrowing frogs avoid muscle wastage whilst they are dormant, ‘survivin’ and ‘checkpoint kinase 1’. Survivin appears to protect cells from the mechanism that normally removes damaged or diseased cells. Whilst, checkpoint kinase 1, regulates cell division and DNA repair. In mammals, a process known as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in inactive muscles damage proteins, causing muscle to waste away. However tailless amphibians suffer less damage from ROS. It has been suggested this may be due to increased levels of protective antioxidants, similar results have also been found in hibernating mammals, such as squirrels.

Lead investigator, Beau Reilly (PhD student) said: “If we can understand the cell signalling pathways that confer resistance to muscle wasting, then these could be useful candidates to study in mammalian muscle atrophy.These could help to develop therapies to treat bedridden human patients or even astronauts, who frequently lose muscle tone when exposed to reduced-gravity conditions.”

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