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Science

Richard Wassersug studies amphibians
in microgravity



Richard Wassersug

Dr. Richard Wassersug, professor at the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology of Dalhousie University in Halifax, is a space biologist interested in how the space environment affects living organisms. Most of his research has been on amphibians such as tadpoles. He has been Principal Investigator for an impressive number of experiments flown on the U.S. Space Shuttle.

Gravity is the single most consistent factor that has influenced life since the first organism evolved. Understanding this influence helps answer fundamental questions about the design of all living organisms larger than a single cell.

The Centrifuge is a laboratory for studying gravitational biology. (Image: JAXA)

The Centrifuge is a laboratory for studying gravitational biology.
(Image: JAXA)

Space life scientists require a well-equipped, specialized environment to conduct their research. Professor Wassersug points out that the International Space Station was designed to fulfill such needs. "The station has the potential to be a superb laboratory for space biological research. A large centrifuge—big enough to house both plants and rodents—has yet to be mounted on the station. Designed to reproduce the acceleration of Earth's gravity (1 g), it is an important control instrument for studies of the effect of microgravity on living organisms."

He notes that, "Without such controls, we would not know whether organisms show physiological changes because of a change in gravity, or some other factors." Other factors may include high radiation levels in space, altered magnetic fields, vibrations for the spacecraft, and disruption of the 24-hour light cycle found on Earth. 

Richard Wassersug in front of a Falcon 20 aircraft with the whole parabolic flight team, including the students from Armbrae Academy in Halifax.

Richard Wassersug in front of a Falcon 20 aircraft with the whole parabolic flight team, including the students from Armbrae Academy in Halifax.

The scientific method is Dr. Wassersug's passion and he is a great advocate of it. "By this method one can be assured that a single variable and only that variable, caused the observed change in the results of the experiment. I like the fact that science is the newest, hottest, most reliable way of understanding the physical and biological world."

As a university-based scientist, Dr. Wassersug sees research and teaching as inseparable activities. "Earlier this year, with the support of CSA, I worked with a half dozen very bright, highly motivated grade 11 and 12 students on a parabolic flight experiment. We studied how amphibians and reptiles respond reflexively to abrupt exposure to microgravity on a parabolic aircraft flight. And we are now completing a major manuscript on that work."

This photograph shows an astronaut working with an adult female frog inside the incubator during the Spacelab-J mission.


This photograph shows an astronaut working with an adult female frog inside the incubator during the Spacelab-J mission. Scientists examined the swimming behaviour of tadpoles grown in the absence of gravity.
(Photo: NASA)

"Space science is exotic and readily inspires students. Space biology presents major challenges and learning how to deal with them helps students work better in other areas of science. To do any space or microgravity research on parabolic flights, one must be very organized, yet flexible enough to adapt to slips in launch schedules."

Dr. Wassersug did not set out to be a space biologist, but fate decided otherwise. "I serendipitously got invited into the field some 15 years ago. Back then, a group at NASA was planning to raise frog eggs on the space shuttle to see how gravity (and the absence thereof) affected the early development of vertebrates. The mission was long enough to bring back live tadpoles on Earth. These were the first alien life forms—after all, they were born in space!—to arrive on our planet. In order to tell whether the space tadpoles were normal, NASA invited me in to study them upon their arrival at Cape Canaveral."

"I thought this NASA experiment would be a one-shot opportunity. I didn't expect to be involved in space biology for more than two years. However, the results lead to other questions and other flight opportunities. Two decades later, I am still studying how gravity affects the development of organisms and how the absence of gravity affects animal behaviour. We have found that there are critical periods when the absence of gravity affects development. We are beginning to understand why and how this happens. My students and I have also begun to find behavioural patterns in a large variety of animals that can be correlated with their ecology and evolutionary relationships. All this research helps us understand how animals have adapted to life in the 1 g world."