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Mosquito survives in outer space

16:19 18/02/2009

 

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Alexander Peslyak) - Preparations are underway for a manned mission to Mars.

Cosmonauts who might fly to the Red Planet are learning how to survive in a forest outside Moscow. Scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medical and Biological Problems are assessing the impact of cosmic radiation on living organisms, one of which even managed to survive in outer space.

Anatoly Grigoryev, vice president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told RIA Novosti that a mosquito had managed to survive in outer space. First, it appeared that Grigoryev was talking about a spider running loose aboard the International Space Station. Incredibly, a mosquito slept for 18 months on the outer ISS surface. "We brought him back to Earth. He is alive, and his feet are moving," Grigoryev said.

The mosquito did not get any food and was subjected to extreme temperatures ranging from minus 150 degrees Celsius in the shade to plus 60 degrees in the sunlight.

Grigoryev said the insect had been taken outside the ISS on orders from the Institute's scientists working on the Biorisk experiment. "First, they studied bacteria and fungi till a Japanese scientist suggested studying mosquitoes," Grigoryev told RIA Novosti.

Since 2005, the Institute has been cooperating with two Japanese institutes under a grant and has been studying biological objects with preset properties, including barley and peas with high genetic resistance.

"Professor Takashi Okuda from the National Institute of Agro-Biological Science drew our attention to the unique, although short-lived, African mosquito (bloodworm), whose larvae develop only in a humid environment," Grigoryev said.

Rains are rare in Africa, where puddles dry up before one's eyes. However, this mosquito is well-adapted to adverse local conditions, existing in a state of suspended animation when vital bodily functions stop almost completely.

When suspended animation sets in, water molecules are replaced by tricallosa sugar, which leads to natural crystallization. The larvae were then sprayed with acetone, boiled and cooled down to minus 210 degrees Celsius, the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Amazingly, they survived all these hardships.

The Japanese also studied bloodworm DNA and found that it could be switched on and deactivated in 30 to 40 minutes. "This is facilitated by the crystallization of biological matter," Doctor of Biology Vladimir Sychev from the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems told RIA Novosti.

Dr. Sychev said scientists were interested in this mechanism, which makes it possible to assess the potential of living organisms subjected to multiple loads in outer space.

He said plant studies had made headway, but that living organisms were affected by gravitation, radiation and temperature fluctuations.

In the summer of 2007, Russian cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov placed a gray cylinder with 24 cups containing barley seeds, bacteria, crustaceans (Dafnia Magna), bloodworm larvae and other biological objects, on the outer ISS surface. More than a year later, cosmonauts Sergei Volkov and Oleg Kononenko removed the cylinder and returned it to Earth.

The unique Biorisk experiment made it possible to study the impact of vacuum, subzero and hot temperatures and radiation on biological objects. It is impossible to simulate these processes, Dr. Sychev stressed.

He said scientists were planning to send a number of microorganisms to Phobos, one of the Mars moons, under the Phobos-Grunt program, and to return them to Earth. This will make it possible to assess their survival and reversible suspended-animation mechanisms.

Dr. Sychev also discussed various findings of the Biorisk project. First, it appears that panspermia, the hypothesis that "seeds" of life already exist all over the Universe, that life on Earth may have originated through these "seeds," and that they may deliver or have delivered life to other habitable bodies, is quite plausible.

Second, it is becoming possible to choose various methods and options for placing biological objects in a state of suspended animation and transporting them on long-duration space missions. An interplanetary Noah's Ark would probably contain crystallized animals and other living organisms, thereby reducing feeding costs.

Although this is still in the realm of science fiction, researchers are currently preparing to sum up Russian and Japanese findings.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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