NASA sends Hawaiian squid into space

Dozens of baby squid from Hawaii were launched into space this month.

NASA sent 128 Hawaiian bobtail squid up to the International Space Station as part of a SpaceX resupply mission on June 3 for scientists to study how they interact in low-gravity situations with their natural bacteria.

"We have found that the symbiosis of humans with their microbes is perturbed in microgravity," said Margaret McFall-Ngai, a University of Hawaii professor. Now, she and University of Florida professor Jamie Foster hope to observe a similar phenomenon in squid.

The experiment is part of NASA's Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions, or UMAMI, program.

Foster worked with NASA to send squid into space in a similar experiment in 2011.

The squid, which grow to about 3 inches in length, have bacteria inside their bodies that regulate their bioluminescence. In the wild, they produce a glow to camouflage themselves in moonlight or starlight to hide from marine predators.

Although there are 4 million cells of bacteria per square inch around the squid when they hatch in the ocean, they recognize the particular symbiotic variety that regulates their bioluminescent qualities among the millions of other microbes, according to McFall-Ngai.

A squid is shown at a lab in Honolulu on June 11, 2021. Dozens of baby squid from Hawaii are in space for study. The baby Hawaiian bobtail squid were raised at the University of Hawaii's Kewalo Marine Laboratory and were blasted into space earlier this month on a SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Craig T. Kojima, Honolulu Star-Advertiser via AP) Craig T. Kojima/AP

The human immune system similarly discerns helpful bacteria from dangerous ones, but that process gets disrupted for astronauts from stressors such as radiation and microgravitational environments. The immune system does not return to normal functioning until the astronaut returns to Earth, according to a study by NASA.

"As astronauts spend more and more time in space, their immune systems become what's called dysregulated. It doesn't function as well. Their immune systems don't recognize bacteria as easily. They sometimes get sick," Foster said.

Researchers will expose the squid, hatched in a controlled lab environment, to the bacteria for the first time. After the symbionts integrate for 12 hours, scientists will freeze the organisms and examine them on a molecular level upon their return to Earth, which is set to occur in July.

Understanding what happens to the squid and their bacteria could improve the health of astronauts, allowing NASA to send them on longer missions than their one-year stays on the International Space Station, according to Foster.

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"There are aspects of the immune system that just don't work properly under long-duration spaceflights. If humans want to spend time on the moon or Mars, we have to solve health problems to get them there safely," she said.

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