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A new study led by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast has shown that understanding an important biological process in zebrafish can help humans travel safely in space. The researchers observed and believed that zebrafish in a state of torpor; could protect humans during spaceflight.


While mankind aspires to set foot on Mars, the harsh conditions of space are likely to make the long journey to the red planet a difficult one for the human body. However, a new study states that understanding the tiny zebrafish’s process of hibernation may provide potential insights into helping humans be protected from the elements of space, especially radiations, during space flight. 

The study led by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast demonstrated that when zebrafish are exposed to radiation, they are protected from it due to a hibernating process known as induced torpor. Deeper knowledge of the process, according to the authors, can help humans during space travel.

About Hibernation and its Importance

  • Hibernation is a physiological condition found in many species. It is a state where an organism enters metabolic depression (reduced metabolism) and engages in very minimal or no physical activity. It protects them against harsh conditions, such as food scarcity and low environmental temperatures.
  • Replicating hibernation may therefore protect astronauts against the harsh conditions of space flight, which include challenges such as radiation exposure, bone and muscle wastage, advanced ageing and vascular problems. If astronauts hibernate on their journey, such difficulties may be solved.
  • Recent technological advancements might have made space travel more accessible. However, long-term space travel was incredibly detrimental to human health. If humans could replicate a similar model of hibernation as observed in the zebrafish, it could increase the chances of making humans a space faring species.
  • Humans hibernating on spaceflights would lead to reduced brain function which would cut down on psychological stress. The change to their metabolism would stop them requiring food, oxygen or water. There was also a possibility such hibernation would protect their muscles from wasting due to the effects caused by radiation and micro gravity.


  • The zebrafish (Danio rerio) is a freshwater fish belonging to the minnow family (Cyprinidae) of the order Cypriniformes.
  • It is native to south Asia and is a popular choice in aquariums.
  • Notably, it is also widely preferred as a vertebrate model organism for scientific research.

The experimental observations

  • To conduct their study, the researchers exposed zebrafish to radiation like what would be experienced on a six-month journey to Mars.
  • They found that this radiation caused signatures of oxidative stress, stress hormone signalling and halting of the cell cycle within the zebrafish.
  • The researchers then induced torpor in a second group of zebrafish which were then exposed to the same dose of radiation and analysed their gene expression patterns to assess the protective effects during this induced state of physical or mental inactivity.
  • The results showed that torpor lowered the metabolic rate within the zebrafish and created a radio protective effect, protecting against the harmful effects of radiation.
  • These insights into how a reduction in metabolic rate could offer protection from radiation exposure and could help humans achieve a similar kind of hibernation, counter measuring the damage they currently face during spaceflight.

Point to remember:

Torpor, a form of hibernation, is a brief spell of suspended animation. It usually lasts less than a day. When in torpor, an animal’s metabolism, heartbeat, breathing, and body temperature are greatly reduced. Studies in squirrels have proven that torpor extends the survival times of irradiated squirrels when compared to active controls. Through the current study, the authors aimed to prove that inducing torpor can benefit human beings while travelling in space.

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