Cows may not be able to jump over the moon, but a Japanese dairy product is about to make the leap. Yakult Honsha Co. Ltd, which makes a yogurt-like food from fermented milk, said Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency under which pots of Yakult are set to boldly go where no Yakult has gone before–the International Space Station.
[pullquote]The Tokyo-based company said its goal was to study the effects of so-called probiotic foods in the near gravity-free environment of the space station. In the six-year study, Japanese astronauts will be asked to consume Yakult daily for a month at a time. Stool, saliva and blood samples will be tested to determine the effects on the astronauts’ constitutions.[/pullquote]
Advocates of such foods, which contain special bacteria, say they help the human digestive and immune systems. Previous studies have shown that the health of astronauts can take a beating while they are in space. Now that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other agencies have begun considering longer missions, like a possible manned trip to Mars, keeping astronauts healthy will take on a greater urgency, officials of the company and the Japanese agency said in an interview.
The space station is run by the Japanese agency in partnership with the space programs of the U.S., Russia, Canada and Europe.
The research could hold benefits for Earth-bound humanoids, too, the officials said. If Yakult is found to help astronauts weather the ravages of space, they said the findings might apply to elderly people and others whose bodies face elevated health risks.
“Space is a model for accelerated aging, so if we can find preventive measures in space, these could be applied on the ground, too,” said Hiroshi Ohshima, manager of the space biomedical research office at JAXA, as the agency is known.
Yakult executives and Jaxa officials said the cost of the study would be shared between the company and the agency. Yakult said it was contributing about 100 million yen, or about $1 million, for the first phase of the study, during which the company and the agency will determine, among other things, whether to use Yakult in its commercial form or alter it for space use. Overall, the company has spent 12 billion yen in the current fiscal year, which ends this month, on research and development.
The experiment with Yakult is not the first research involving food or bacteria in space. Researchers at Arizona State University have conducted a series of studies on the effects of space flight on disease-causing organisms like salmonella, discovering that they grew far more virulent once they had left the Earth and its gravitational field behind.
Welcoming active bacteria–in this case, the Shirota strain of lactobacillus casei–into the sterile environment of space requires a certain shift of thinking. In the past, astronauts have consumed mostly bland, specially processed “space food,’’ and they have often been isolated before space missions in an effort to prevent contamination with harmful viruses or bacteria.
The company says lactobacillus casei is a friendly alien. “It is proven to be safe for humans, and it makes food tastier, too,” said Takashige Negishi, chief operating officer of Yakult Honsha.