Saturday, May 21, 2022

‘Metabolic trick’ in squirrel guts could help astronauts in deep space: Researchers

New research by Université de Montréal biologists seeks to explain how squirrels conserve energy while hibernating, and what effects that information could have on the future of space travel.

Matthew Regan’s study of thirteen-lined ground squirrels found in North America confirms the theory of “urea nitrogen salvage”, which suggests that some hibernating animals may pull off a “metabolic trick” in which their gut microbes urea. They recycle nitrogen – a manufactured waste product in both ground squirrels and humans that are normally excreted in urine – and reuse it to make new tissue proteins.

One of the problems with hibernating animals is their losing vital dietary nitrogen due to extended fasting periods, which can lead to a protein imbalance. In other animals it can cause muscle loss, but Regan’s research shows that this recycling of nitrogen prevents this damage in hibernators.

Regan’s team injected the squirrels with urea that was specially marked to make it easier to track as the squirrel’s gut microbes break it down. They tracked this process during different seasons of the year, and found that nitrogen reuptake was actually at its highest at the end of the animals’ hibernation period in late winter. This suggests that the rescue process is most active in the spring, just before the squirrel comes out of hibernation, helping it to prepare for the active season for feeding and mating.

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Regan suggests that the same process may have applications for astronauts in space, who typically experience some muscle loss in space flight.

Currently, astronauts do intense exercise in space to reduce these effects on their muscles, but this requires both space and some equipment in the spacecraft.

But if the process of urea nitrogen disposal can be replicated in astronauts, it could help prevent muscle loss on future trips, when spacecraft may need to be smaller and capable of carrying exercise equipment. Not possible.

“Because we know which muscle proteins are suppressed during spaceflight, we can compare these proteins with proteins that are increased by urea nitrogen salvage during hibernation,” he said. “If there is an overlap between proteins in spaceflight and proteins from hibernation, it suggests that this process may benefit muscle health during spaceflight.”

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Regan’s research began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This attracted the attention of the Canadian Space Agency, which gave Regan a research grant at the Université de Montréal to continue his work.

A little closer to home, Regan also suggests that his research could be useful in health care settings to help bedridden or elderly people in hospitals. He also sees potential applications for malnourished people, a condition that currently affects more than 805 million people globally.

“To be clear, these applications, although theoretically possible, are a long way from delivery, and a lot of additional work is needed to safely and effectively translate this naturally evolved mechanism to humans.” required,” Regan said.

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Nation World News Desk
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