OHIO professors advance international astronaut and space biology research

Published: January 20, 2021 Author: Staff reports

Ohio University faculty are part of a team of researchers who have published a special compilation of papers that is being described as the largest set of astronaut and space biology data ever produced.

Nathaniel Szewczyk, Ph.D., professor of molecular medicine at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Sarah Wyatt, Ph.D., professor of environmental and plant biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, coauthored six of 29 papers recently published by NASA in a special compilation of Cell Press journal articles called “The biology of spaceflight.” The OHIO researchers are among more than 200 investigators from dozens of academic, government, aerospace and industry groups to contribute to the articles.

The effort brought together a unique collaboration across the four largest space agencies in the world – NASA, JAXA, ESA and ROSCOSMOS – with research spanning longitudinal multi-omic profiling, single-cell immune and epitope mapping, novel radiation countermeasures and detailed biochemical profiles of 56 astronauts.

Szewczyk, who also holds the Heritage Endowed Professorship in Molecular Medicine, Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Ralph S. Licklider, D.O., Research Endowment, coauthored the papers, “Comparative transcriptomics identifies neuronal and metabolic adaptations to hypergravity and microgravity in Caenorhabditis elegans”; “A New Era for Space Life Science: International Standards for Space Omics Processing (ISSOP)”; and “Revamping Space-omics in Europe.” He and Wyatt coauthored the paper, “NASA GeneLab RNA-Seq Consensus Pipeline: Standardized Processing of Short-Read RNA-Seq Data.”

Some of the groundbreaking work reported in these papers used NASA’s GeneLab, a repository for all genomics data related to space flight and gravity. The GeneLab is intended to be used by scientists to generate novel discoveries and develop new hypotheses for determining systemic biological responses occurring in spaceflight. Space biologists around the world rely on these omics data to maximize the knowledge gained from spaceflight experiments.

“The GeneLab was set up to analyze large data sets of molecules that change in response to space flight, and continues to collect existing data from the past, as well as generates new data from ongoing flights,” Szewczyk explained. “There is a push to look at whether we can use such data sets to better understand astronaut health and to see what lessons can be learned in similar experiments.”

Wyatt learned about the GeneLab after working on her first space flight experiment in 2015 and decided to use her OHIO Faculty Fellowship Leave to work with NASA developing the GeneLab more and helping establish it as a place for accessible data.

“Sarah was truly invaluable in setting up GeneLab’s agenda,” said Sigrid Reinsch, Ph.D., principal investigator and research scientist at NASA-Ames Research Center.

Members of NASA GeneLab and GeneLab-associated analysis working groups have also developed a consensus pipeline for analyzing short-read RNA-sequencing data from spaceflight-associated experiments. The pipeline includes quality control, read trimming, mapping and gene quantification steps, culminating in the detection of differentially expressed genes. This data analysis pipeline is all publicly available through the GeneLab database.

“The GeneLab’s pipeline is a fantastic opportunity for scientists and anyone interested in the data to have easy access to the results and to use this information to compare experiments,” Wyatt said. “When we looked at the data sets from previous experiments, we knew we needed to integrate and expand them so others could utilize this data. I’m excited to see NASA take this on and publish the details and rationale for the construction of this pipeline, as well as to see a former Ph.D. student of mine, Colin Kruse, as an author on this paper.”

Kruse graduated with a Ph.D. from OHIO’s interdisciplinary graduate program in molecular and cellular biology in 2019, a program which Wyatt also directs. He is currently a post-doc at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Most of Wyatt’s research includes her work with gravitational biology and how plants respond to gravity. She has conducted experiments, while at OHIO, sending plants into space to see how genes are regulated in response to spaceflight and will do so again on a flight mission slated for May.

Szewczyk also has a spaceflight experiment slated to launch on the same mission as Wyatt’s, making it the first time two OHIO professors will have experiments launching on the same mission.