Mine Quest: The Science

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Robert Osborne

Making astronauts and scuba divers safer and decoding the mysteries of the human genome.  The kind of science
that’s taking place on the Mine Quest expedition is cutting edge and figuratively speaking, out of this world.

Dr. Neal Pollock, research director for the Divers Alert Network and scientist at the Center for Environmental Physiology and Hyperbaric Medicine at Duke University Medical Center wants to close the gap between the theory and reality behind decompression sickness.  He says that much of the information on decompression provided to divers and astronauts is based on theoretical modeling.  While theory is important, human testing is incomplete, and theory does not include many variables that can affect individual risk.

His team will use ultrasound on Mine Quest divers to track the presence of microbubbles in their hearts—indicators
of decompression stress.  They will monitor the divers closely after each dive to determine if and when microbubbles appear and progress.  They will also collect blood samples to assess other measures of decompression stress to compare with the bubble data. Studying divers in the field is important since “they’re diving profiles that are difficult to produce in the lab.”  The Mine Quest team will provide an opportunity to study decompression stress over repeated days of repetitive, cold-water diving.

The results will benefit divers and other who experience decompression stress, including astronauts who decompress to complete spacewalks.

The second experiment isn’t concerned so much with outer space, as it is inner space. Dr. Dawn Kernagis of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in Florida, will be looking at whether and how stress can actually
re-program humans at a genetic level.

They’re called epigenetic changes and science is only just starting to realize that such a change is possible.  Prior to now the conventional wisdom was that our genetic code was fixed.  Not so, according to Kernagis.  She says a number of factors, including stress, can bring on changes to our very genetic make up.  She’ll be having blood drawn from the divers before and after they dive that will enable her to look for micro particles that develop in response the stress.  Based on the appearance of those markers Kernagis can conduct further work to see whether that results in a corresponding change at a genetic level.

Her work could have enormous implications for such afflictions as childhood obesity and elder diabetes.
Dr. Kernagis’ work is currently being partly supported by the U.S. government.

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