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Deep sleep: How mice hiberante to fly to Mars...

Scientists have succeeded in placing mice in artificial comas and waking them up again on command. If this is also possible for humans then it would clear the way for manned flights into deep outer space. The astronauts could easily sleep for year-long flights.

Plan for a first ESA Mars base station
Picture by ESA

The little leading actress of the cute cartoon series "The mouse on Mars" could soon get a whole community of friends from Earth, according to the sensational insight of the US cell biologist Mark Roth from the Cancer Research Centre in Seattle. The little rodents are the very first mammals which we have managed to artificially click on and off the biological switch for shutting down all body functions like for cold blooded creatures. You could also send them on the six to ten month long journey to the Red Planet, sending them to sleep beforehand to conserve energy and waking them up again in good time before the landing via remote control.

Mice could be placed under artificial hibernation in Mark Roths experiment with hydrogen sulphide
Picture by T. Micke

Mark Roths test-mice had an extra dose of hydrogen sulphide mixed in their breathing air, the gas that is responsible for the revolting smell of bad eggs and certain joke articles. After just five minutes, the oxygen demand of the little animals dropped by half. After six hours they only needed a tenth of the original amount. At the same time their breathing, which normally for mice is between 120 breaths per minute, sank to less than ten and the body temperature similar to that of humans, 37 degrees, was reduced to 11 degrees through the cooling of the sleeping chamber. When Prof. Roth and his team removed the smell of rotten eggs, the mice awoke slowly and undamaged. The breathing and body temperature returned to normal.

Mother nature’s mechanism, no longer needed by warm blooded creatures but obviously still at hand, which triggers this "stand-by" mode in mice like for a half turned-off television set, must be just as easy to activate in humans, like all other mammals. Before it can be tried out in any case, an endless number of tests still need to be completed and the scientists want to test out substances similar to sulphur other than the hydrogen sulphide that is poisonous in high doses.

Such bemused long-distance astronauts would not only change a very small amount, because their cells and all organs are simmering on the back burner, but they would also need to take on board only a fraction of the oxygen reserves and nutritional provisions for their odyssey into space. Not to mention that it would also avoid human conflicts, which can scupper such a long journey in a small space.

US cell biologist Dr. Mark Roth
Picture by Mark Roth

If the US scientists are successful, reality would overtake near science fiction visions like in the cinema film "Alien", where Sigourney Weaver, as Lieutenant Ripley, dozing for whole light years in her spaceship, sleeping through a guaranteed deathly boredom.

And whoever can afford it and believes that life on earth will perhaps be nicer than today or more worth living in 100 years, they could in a way buy time in a permanent monitored hi-tech-"bear cave" and accede a hibernation until the year 2105 – provided that they can endure the stench of rotten eggs for so long.

Mark Roths discovery has yet another very serious background, which could revolutionise medicine: seriously ill and severely injured people would have a better chance with his "temporary apparent death", coming out of it without lasting damage, when acute lack of blood or oxygen exists. For transplants, organs such as kidneys, the liver or the heart could be kept "fresh" for longer, because the cells are then "more frugal". And – what Prof. Roth had aimed for with his research work – healthy human cells lying near cancerous ulcers, which are normally susceptible for damage though their need for oxygen during radiotherapy, would be made insensitive to radioactivity though this energy saving trick.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (08-05-05) – Contact