Gravitational Biology

Slipper animal (Paramecium caudatum). Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
Slipper animal (Paramecium caudatum). Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)
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Of course, most animals know which direction is up and which is down – otherwise they would not be able to navigate their surroundings. Orientation helps them to find food and avoid danger. But is this also true of single cell organisms? Do paramecia (or “slipper animals”) in a puddle react to the earth’s gravitational pull? Or do they use other stimuli such as light or temperature? And are our observations the results of the laws of physics or are other mechanisms needed to explain them?

We will establish several hypotheses and test them by carrying out experiments on the swimming behaviour of paramecia. Using a video camera and a special computer programme, we will record the directions in and the velocities with which paramecia swim.

The interesting question is: Can we transfer the mechanism that paramecia use to orientate themselves onto a specialised human cell? Our findings might even be important within aerospace medicine.

What do frogs, fish, mice and astronauts have in common?

An astronaut on a space walk. Credit: NASA
An astronaut on a space walk. Credit: NASA

On Earth, gravity is the only reliable stimulus. It is always there, always has the same directionality and hardly changes at all. If single cell organisms, like paramecia, use gravity as their means of orientation, how is this possible, given that they have no sensory organs, no nervous system and no brain? Would it then be possible for our cells to have inherited the ability to perceive gravity? And what would happen to these cells, if they were exposed to the exceptional circumstances of weightlessness for a prolonged period of time?

Observing slipper animals under a microscope. Credit: DLR
Observing slipper animals under a microscope. Credit: DLR

Because we are pursuing answers to these questions in a variety of ways, there are some frogs, mice and fish that have flown on a Space Shuttle and have seen the inside of the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts are among those interested in the insights to be gained from biological research, as we hope one day to be able to solve some of the long-term problems of living in weightlessness.

 

 

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