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Squirrel research could help astronauts in deep space: researcher

New research by a biologist at the Université de Montréal aims to explain how squirrels conserve energy when they hibernate and the effects that information could have on the future of space travel.

Matthew Regan’s research on the thirteen-lined ground squirrel found in North America seems to confirm the “urea nitrogen rescue” theory, which suggests that some hibernating animals can perform a “trick”. metabolism” in which their gut bacteria recycle nitrogen urea – a waste product produced in both ground squirrels and in humans normally excreted in urine – and reuse it to make new tissue proteins .

One of the problems hibernating animals have is the loss of vital dietary nitrogen due to their prolonged fasting, which can cause protein imbalances. In other animals, this can lead to muscle loss, but Regan’s research shows that recycling this nitrogen prevents this damage in hibernating humans.

Regan’s team injected the squirrels with specially marked urea to make it easier to track as the squirrel’s gut bacteria broke it down. They tracked this process during different seasons of the year and found that nitrogen recombination actually peaks in late winter, at the end of the animal’s hibernation. This suggests that salvaging is most intense just before the squirrels have to come out of hibernation in the spring, helping to prepare for an active feeding and mating season.

Regan suggests that this same process could have applications for astronauts in space, who often lose muscle during spaceflight.

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

But if urea nitrogen salvaging can be replicated in astronauts, this could help prevent muscle loss during future deep space trips when spacecraft may need to be smaller and less efficient. You can bring exercise equipment.

“Because we know which muscle proteins are inhibited during spaceflight, we can compare these proteins with proteins that are enhanced by scavenging urea during hibernation,” he said. “If there is an overlap between the proteins during spaceflight and the proteins from hibernation, it suggests that this process may be beneficial for muscle health during spaceflight.”

Regan’s research began at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It caught the attention of the Canadian Space Agency, which granted Regan a research grant at the University of Montréal to continue his work.

A little closer to home, Regan also suggests that her research could be useful in healthcare settings to help bedridden or elderly people. He also sees possible applications for people suffering from malnutrition, a condition that currently affects more than 805 million people globally.

To be clear, these applications, while theoretically possible, are a long way from being usable, and a lot more work needs to be done, says Regan. work to safely and efficiently convert this natural evolutionary mechanism to humans.

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