Immunology boffins in the US are hoping to learn the secret of how to keep humans well enough for long enough to live on the Moon or travel to Mars by sending some tiny squid into space.
While this may seem like a slightly counterintuitive plan, the reason the squid were chosen as test subjects is perfectly sensible and not because NASA is joining in with some informal "Be Mean To Sealife" week for US government bodies – despite the US Air Force's recent efforts to kill snails with missiles and the US Navy's decision to set off big explosions in the Atlantic.
Rather, the sickness-studying whitecoats are trying to find out if watching how Hawaiian bobtail squid react to zero gravity will help them understand why it upsets the way humans react to germs.
"As astronauts spend more and more time in space, their immune systems become what's called dysregulated. It doesn't function as well," Dr Jamie Foster, Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Cell Science at the University of Florida, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. "Their immune systems don't recognize bacteria as easily. They sometimes get sick."
The nocturnal Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes), which grows to a full adult size of only three inches (7.6cm) long, has a symbiotic relationship with a species of bioluminescent bacteria called Vibrio fischeri.
The bacteria allow the squid to remain camouflaged through counter-illumination, or emitting light at the same intensity as its surroundings to prevent it standing out to predators.
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The scientists running the experiment, dubbed UMAMI (Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions), want to see how the squid's relationship with its single species of symbiont changes in zero-g. This will let them learn more about what might be happening in the relationship between humans and their own multiple species of symbiotic microbes that causes the immune system to stop recognising bacteria as easily, potentially causing illness.
This research could have immense importance for future long-duration space missions, especially if humanity wants to eventually travel beyond its own backyard.
"There are aspects of the immune system that just don't work properly under long-duration spaceflights," Dr Foster said. "If humans want to spend time on the Moon or Mars, we have to solve health problems to get them there safely."
The 128 doughty squid are currently on the International Space Station, having been sent up there on 3 June via a SpaceX resupply mission. They will return to Earth in July.
If they suffer any sort of dysregulation in their relationship with their symbiotic bacterial companions, expect them to be returned to the scientists with a note reading: "Here's the sick squid I owe you." ®