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Ph.D. student collaborates with NASA on cutting-edge research.

Yeast experiments could address concerns of effects of radiation on human space flight.

(November 15, 2022) - Space exploration fascinates people from across the globe and research that contributes to a better understanding of this other-wordly expanse, including how to keep astronauts safe within this environment, is a cutting-edge topic of inquiry. 

Michel (Mike) Lapointe, Laurentian University Ph.D. student in Biomolecular Sciences research focuses on “The anhydrobiotic radiation response in yeast,” which seeks to address questions about the biological effects of radiation, a potential health concern of human space flight and other occupational exposures. 

Lapointe is a proud Sudburian who graduated from École Secondaire Collège Notre Dame (2013) before pursuing his post-secondary education. He chose to study at Laurentian, earning his B.Sc. in Biomedical Physics (2017) and M.Sc. in Physics with a specialization in Medical Physics (2020). “Continuing my education at Laurentian made sense. I absolutely love research and radiation science has been an interest of mine since starting my undergrad.” 

To study the impacts of radiation on biological systems, and more specifically, how space radiation may impact astronauts, Lapointe is working closely with co-supervisors Dr. Christopher Thome and Dr. Douglas Boreham, committee member Dr. Sujeenthar Tharmalingam, and lab technician Taylor Laframboise. All are affiliated with NOSM University

To conduct their research, Lapointe and team are using the same yeast-based technology used by the NASA Ames Research Center team for the BioSentinel experiment, in which desiccated (dried) yeast samples are utilized as living radiation detectors. The NASA team is using this model to study the biological impact of deep-space radiation, whereas Lapointe and team are fully characterizing the radiation response of this model in a laboratory environment. The mechanisms used to repair damage from radiation in yeast are nearly identical to those utilized by humans, making them an ideal substitute for humans.

“The dried yeast is still alive,” explained Lapointe. “That’s one of the really cool things about yeast. Once dried, it’s super robust. These samples don’t really care much about temperature, even extremely cold temperatures found in space…. They also don’t need oxygen. They don’t need nutrients, or water.”

This week, BioSentinel CubeSat satellite containing the NASA yeast samples will be launched into space. “This research has the goal of better understanding what the radiation environment in space is like and what it will do to biological systems. This mission is going into deep space, between 30 and 50 million kilometres from Earth. The NASA team and we, as collaborators, are doing our research so we can figure out what kind of damage, if any, results from deep space radiation exposure in order to better inform future crewed space flights.”

The satellite contains a self-sustaining system programmed to rehydrate the yeast samples once in space and collect data about the effects of radiation on these samples. “Based on the rate of colour change of the dye with which the yeast is rehydrated, we’ll be able to infer how many of them are still alive and how many of them have died because of radiation,” Lapointe surmised.  

Alongside the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Ames Research Centre (NASA), other research partners include the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, and TRIUMF.

Funding supporting this research is plentiful and derives from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems, Bruce Power, the Canadian Space Agency and the Nuclear Innovation Institute

“We’re really excited about this study and the impact it will have,” said Lapointe who also outlined that SNOLAB, a world-class science facility, is another location that has proven useful to his study. This is because his research also considers the impact of natural sources of radiation, such as solar and galactic cosmic radiation, on living organisms. Underground, Lapointe discovered something interesting about the way yeast behaves in the absence of natural background radiation: it is more likely to die off when re-exposed to background radiation after being underground. This discovery wasn’t predicted and informs that more research is needed. 

“Being a part of this research that involves such massive collaborations has been a great experience,” said Lapointe. “Research is something I definitely want to continue doing for the rest of my life.”

We are eager to follow Lapointe’s remaining academic journey and discover the results of his cutting-edge research.