Research Spotlight: 2019: A Mouse Odyssey

brown and white mice
Researchers from the Jackson Laboratory at UConn have published their research about the muscular quality of mice in space. Photo by Alexas Fotos on

A team of researchers from the Jackson Laboratory and the University of Connecticut have published their research about the muscular quality of mice in space. 

The team is led by Professor Se-Jin Lee, MD, Ph.D. of the Jackson Laboratory and UConn Health, and Professor Emily Germain-Lee, MD of UConn Health. 

Astronauts face the challenge of having their bones and muscles atrophy over time. On shorter trips, this can be remedied by having the astronauts stick to a specialized exercise schedule. However, future space voyages may take longer than current trips, and the current exercise routines may not be sufficient for that length of trip.  

There is another option, though: a protein known as myostatin, which was discovered by Lee. Myostatin is part of a system that limits muscle growth in humans and other animals. By inhibiting myostatin, muscle growth is allowed at a higher rate than normal.  

In this experiment, forty mice, both with and without myostatin, were launched into space in December 2019. The mice without myostatin had been bred to reduce the protein in their body and were referred to as ‘Mighty Mice’. The mice then took SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station, where they stayed for a month before returning to Earth in January 2020. While on the station, the mice were cared for in part by Jessica Meir and Christina Koch, the first women to complete an all-female spacewalk.  

Upon their return, the researchers found that the ‘mighty mice’ did indeed fare better on the space journey. The group published their research on the mice in September 2020. 

“Mice that were hypermuscular as a result of having a mutation in the myostatin gene were able to retain most, if not all, of that extra muscle during spaceflight,” said the researchers in an interview with CNN

In contrast, the mice with myostatin lost more than 10% of their bone and muscle mass.  

This research is notable because it could be a path forward to longer spaceflights, specifically to Mars. For now, the next step is to continue trials with humans. 

“We’re years away. But that’s how everything is when you go from mouse to human studies,” said Germain-Lee in an interview with AP

Until then, this research may have more terrestrial applications. According to the study’s website, this research could be used to help the elderly, those with muscle-wasting diseases and other rare diseases.  

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