Understanding the effects of gravity on biological organisms is vital to the success of future space missions. Previous studies in Earth orbit have shown that the common fruitfly (Drosophila melanogaster) walks more quickly and more frequently in microgravity, compared with its motion on Earth. However, flight preparation procedures and forces endured on launch made it difficult to implement on the Earth's surface a control that exposed flies to the same sequence of major physical and environmental changes. To address the uncertainties concerning these behavioural anomalies, we have studied the walking paths of D. melanogaster in a pseudo-weightless environment (0g*) in our Earth-based laboratory. We used a strong magnetic field, produced by a superconducting solenoid, to induce a diamagnetic force on the flies that balanced the force of gravity. Simultaneously, two other groups of flies were exposed to a pseudo-hypergravity environment (2g*) and a normal gravity environment (1g*) within the spatially varying field. The flies had a larger mean speed in 0g* than in 1g*, and smaller in 2g*. The mean square distance travelled by the flies grew more rapidly with time in 0g* than in 1g*, and slower in 2g*. We observed no other clear effects of the magnetic field, up to 16.5 T, on the walks of the flies. We compare the effect of diamagnetically simulated weightlessness with that of weightlessness in an orbiting spacecraft, and identify the cause of the anomalous behaviour as the altered effective gravity.
Research Containing: Hypergravity
Sensorimotor adaptation of point-to-point arm movements after spaceflight: the role of internal representation of gravity force in trajectory planning
After an exposure to weightlessness, the central nervous system operates under new dynamic and sensory contexts. To find optimal solutions for rapid adaptation, cosmonauts have to decide whether parameters from the world or their body have changed and to estimate their properties. Here, we investigated sensorimotor adaptation after a spaceflight of 10 days. Five cosmonauts performed forward point-to-point arm movements in the sagittal plane 40 days before and 24 and 72 h after the spaceflight. We found that, whereas the shape of hand velocity profiles remained unaffected after the spaceflight, hand path curvature significantly increased 1 day after landing and returned to the preflight level on the third day. Control experiments, carried out by 10 subjects under normal gravity conditions, showed that loading the arm with varying loads (from 0.3 to 1.350 kg) did not affect path curvature. Therefore, changes in path curvature after spaceflight cannot be the outcome of a control process based on the subjective feeling that arm inertia was increased. By performing optimal control simulations, we found that arm kinematics after exposure to microgravity corresponded to a planning process that overestimated the gravity level and optimized movements in a hypergravity environment ( approximately 1.4 g). With time and practice, the sensorimotor system was recalibrated to Earth's gravity conditions, and cosmonauts progressively generated accurate estimations of the body state, gravity level, and sensory consequences of the motor commands (72 h). These observations provide novel insights into how the central nervous system evaluates body (inertia) and environmental (gravity) states during sensorimotor adaptation of point-to-point arm movements after an exposure to weightlessness.
Stimulus deprivation or stimulus augmentation can induce long-lasting modifications to sensory and motor systems. If deprivation is effective only during a limited period of life this phase is called “critical period.” A critical period was described for the development of the roll-induced vestibuloocular reflex (rVOR) of Xenopus laevis using spaceflights. Spaceflight durations and basic conditions of Xenopus’ development did not make it possible to answer the question whether exposure of the immature vestibular organ to weightlessness affects rVOR development. The embryonic development of Pleurodeles waltl is slow enough to solve this problem because the rVOR cannot be induced before 15 dpf. Stage 20–21 embryos (4 dpf) were exposed to microgravity during a 10-day spaceflight, or to 3g hypergravity following the same time schedule. After termination of altered gravity, the rVOR was recorded twice in most animals. The main observations were as follows: (1) after the first rVOR appearance at stage 37 (16 dpf), both rVOR gain and amplitude increased steadily up to saturation levels of 0.22 and 20°, respectively. (2) Three days after termination of microgravity, flight and ground larvae showed no rVOR; 1 day later, the rVOR could be induced only in ground larvae. Differences disappeared after 3 weeks. (3) For 10 days after 3g exposure, rVOR development was similar to that of 1g-controls but 3 weeks later, 3g-larvae showed a larger rVOR than 1g-controls. These observations indicate that the immature vestibular system is transiently sensitive to microgravity exposure and that exposure of the immature vestibular system to hypergravity leads to a slowly growing vestibular sensitization.
We measured the effect of the orientation of the visual background on the perceptual upright (PU) under different levels of gravity. Brief periods of micro- and hypergravity conditions were created using two series of parabolic flights. Control measures were taken in the laboratory under normal gravity with subjects upright, right side down and supine. Participants viewed a polarized, natural scene presented at various orientations on a laptop viewed through a hood which occluded all other visual cues. Superimposed on the screen was a character the identity of which depended on its orientation. The orientations at which the character was maximally ambiguous were measured and the perceptual upright was defined as half way between these orientations. The visual background affected the orientation of the PU less when in microgravity than when upright in normal gravity and more when supine than when upright in normal gravity. A weighted vector sum model was used to quantify the relative influence of the orientations of gravity, vision and the body in determining the perceptual upright.
Microgravity and hypergravity effects on fertilization of the salamander Pleurodeles waltl (urodele amphibian)
Effects of microgravity (microG) on fertilization were studied in the urodele amphibian Pleurodeles waltl on board the MIR space station. Genetic and cytomorphologic analyses ruled out parthenogenesis or gynogenesis and proved that fertilization did occur in microG. Actual fertilization was demonstrated by the analysis of the distribution of peptidase-1 genes, a polymorphic sex-linked enzyme, in progenies obtained in microG. Further evidence of fertilization was provided by the presence of spermatozoa in the perivitelline space and in the fertilization layer of the microG eggs and by the presence of a female pronucleus and male pronuclei in the egg cytoplasm. Experiments in microG and in 1.4G, 2G, and 3G hypergravity showed for the first time that, compared to eggs in 1G, several characteristics of the fertilization process including the cortical reaction and the microvillus transformations were altered depending on the gravitational force applied to the eggs. Microvillus elevation, the most evident feature, was reduced on microG-eggs and amplified on eggs submitted to 2G and 3G. No lethal consequences of these alterations on the early development of microG-eggs were observed.
Observing the mouse thyroid sphingomyelin under space conditions: a case study from the MDS mission in comparison with hypergravity conditions
This is a case report of apparent thyroid structural and functional alteration in a single mouse subjected to low Earth orbit spaceflight for 91 days. Histological examination of the thyroid gland revealed an increase in the average follicle size compared to that of three control animals and three animals exposed to hypergravity (2g) conditions. Immunoblotting analysis detected an increase in two thyroid gland enzymes, sphingomyelinase and sphingomyelin-synthase1. In addition, sphingomyelinase, an enzyme confined to the cell nucleus in the control animals, was found in the mouse exposed to hypogravity to be homogeneously distributed throughout the cell bodies. It represents the first animal observation of the influence of weightlessness on sphingomyelin metabolism.
Gravity control of growth form in Brassica rapa and Arabidopsis thaliana (Brassicaceae): Consequences for secondary metabolism
How gravity influences the growth form and flavor components of plants is of interest to the space program because plants could be used for food and life support during prolonged missions away from the planet, where that constant feature of Earth's environment does not prevail. We used plant growth hardware from prior experiments on the space shuttle to grow Brassica rapa and Arabidopsis thaliana plants during 16-d or 11-d hypergravity treatments on large-diameter centrifuge rotors. Both species showed radical changes in growth form, becoming more prostrate with increasing g-loads (2-g and 4-g). In Brassica, height decreased and stems thickened in a linear relationship with increasing g-load. Glucosinolates, secondary compounds that contribute flavor to Brassica, decreased by 140% over the range of micro to 4-g, while the structural secondary compound, lignin, remained constant at approximately 15% (w/w) cell wall dry mass. Stem thickening at 4-g was associated with substantial increases in cell size (47%, 226%, and 33% for pith, cortex, and vascular tissue), rather than any change in cell number. The results, which demonstrate the profound effect of gravity on plant growth form and secondary metabolism, are discussed in the context of similar thigmostresses such as touch and wind.