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Sex in space may pose health risks, study suggests

March 17, 2013 7:55am
Sex in space may sound like an attractive out-of-this-world experience, but it could actually lead to potentially life-threatening illnesses, researchers warn.

A report on UK's The Daily Mail quoted scientists as saying zero-gravity conditions may affect processes involved in reproduction, as well as brain diseases and even cancer.

"What we are still discovering is how the processes occurring within the cells of the human and plant bodies are affected by the more intense gravity, or hypergravity, that would be found on a large planet, or the microgravity that resembles the conditions on a space craft," it quoted Professor Anja Geitmann, a biologist at Montreal University, as saying.

Co-researcher Dr. Youssef Chebli added these findings may also have implications for human health, "as similar effects are likely to occur in human cells such as neurons where long distance intracellular transport is crucial."

The Daily Mail report added the study may have implications in the near future, amid planned manned missions to Mars that could last years.

On the other hand, it said sex in space may soon become reality when humans establish bases on the Moon or on Mars with the aim of establishing a self-sustaining colony – or even in private space flights, with some companies aiming to start flying tourists to suborbital space as early as next year.

Sensitive to disturbance

Geitmann said intra-cellular transport processes are "particularly sensitive to disturbance, with dramatic consequences for cell functioning."

The Daily Mail report said a study on plants showed changes in gravity may damage cells and could potentially lead to life-threatening illnesses.

It said the study found gravity modulates so-called "highway traffic" in cells that ensures the growth and functionality of the pollen tube, the male reproductive organ in plants.

"Just like during human reproduction the sperm cells in plants are delivered to the egg by a cylindrical tool. Unlike the delivery tool in animals the device used during plant sex consists of a single cell – and only two sperm cells are discharged during each delivery event," Geitmann said.

Highways and traffic jams

Scientists likened the interior of plant and animal cells to cities with small "factories" involved in manufacturing, production of energy and processing of waste.

A network of "highways" allows communication among these factories and the delivery of energy and waste between them the external environment.

Geitmann said their findings show a "traffic jam" on these highways can "cause cancer and illnesses such as Alzheimer's."

Tests

During the tests, plant cells were placed in a large centrifuge along with a camera attached to a microscope.

"Thanks to the facilities at the European Space Agency I was able to determine how hypergravity and simulated microgravity affect the intracellular trafficking in the rapidly growing pollen tube," Chebli said.

Chebli said they chose pollen, the carrier of the male sperm cells, as their model because of its rapid growth, "meaning we could observe the effects of the hypergravity within seconds."

"We found intracellular traffic flow is compromised under hyper-gravity conditions and both hyper and microgravity affect the precisely coordinated construction of the cellular envelope in the growing cell," Chebli said.

Chebli added this allowed the researchers "not only to understand general principles of the reproductive mechanism in plants but, more importantly, how the intracellular transport machinery in eukaryotic cells responds to altered gravity conditions." — LBG, GMA News
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