NASA's Rodent Research Hardware System (Rodent Research Habitat System) was designed for use as a research platform aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for long-duration rodent experiments in space. As with previous space life science experiment platforms, the system was designed to investigate the effects of microgravity on biological processes of direct relevance to humans in space in order to better understand the countermeasures needed to enable long-duration human spaceflight, to make discoveries in basic biology, and to acquire knowledge that would have a direct impact on human health on Earth.
On the maiden voyage of the Rodent Research Hardware System, dubbed Rodent Research-1, the payload was transported to the ISS on a SpaceX-4 CRS-4 Dragon cargo spacecraft.
NASA's primary objective for this mission was to validate the newly-developed RR1 hardware and demonstrate critical research operations, while supporting the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) in sponsoring the first commercial research study. NASA had no science objectives or principal investigators assigned to this preliminary mission. The agency's goals were to validate that the rodent research hardware could deliver and maintain healthy animals, that on-orbit activities to support the hardware operations could be performed, and that a limited set of generic on-orbit operations such as euthanasia, gross dissection, and sample preservation could be performed to support future science objectives. The CASIS research study objectives were to explore the molecular basis of muscle atrophy caused by extended microgravity exposure from spaceflight.
After Dragon delivered the payload to ISS, astronauts transferred ten mice to each of two habitats, one in support of CASIS research, the other to validate NASA hardware and operations. A transporter and two identical habitats were tested at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as ground control units based on a 4-day delay. These consisted of basal mice from the same cohorts as the flight mice, control mice housed in standard vivarium cages, and ground controls housed in RR1 flight hardware within an environmental simulator under the same conditions as the ISS. Data collected from sensors and cameras installed in flight and on the ground enabled scientists to monitor the health of the research animals, and engineers to examine the operational characteristics of the hardware.
Post flight, NASA researchers analyzed liver and spleen samples from both flight and ground control mice to determine if the validation study objectives were met in terms of tissue yield and quality. The analyses included RNA quality, certain markers of gene expression and metabolism, measurements of liver enzyme activities, and protein content. The CASIS scientists assessed muscle changes in mouse hind limb muscles.
All of the hardware, operations, and science objectives were achieved during the flight, marking a new science capability for supporting long-duration rodent research on the International Space Station. Hardware performance was deemed nominal and science objectives were successfully completed. Based on observation, the system supported the health of all twenty mice, which were assumed to be healthy during the mission. They exhibited normal behavior, showed no signs of stress, and had body weights that did not differ significantly from the ground control groups. Spontaneous ambulatory behavior in mice observed during the flight provided a possible area of future research on rodents in microgravity. The returned samples were of acceptable quality for molecular biology methods and gene profiling. RNA quality from samples retrieved in flight was acceptable for even the most rigorous transcriptomic analyses, and liver enzyme activity levels of both flight and control subjects were on par with optimally prepared laboratory samples.
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