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PromoCells in Space – Part III: M2 Macrophages in Zero Gravity

Have you ever been weightless or experienced zero gravity? Our macrophages have! There are several possibilities to doing research in weightlessness – in fact, during our last two episodes of PromoCells in Space we have already introduced you to one of them: sounding rockets. However, suborbital and orbitals flights are instruments to elucidate mid- and long-term effects of microgravity, whereas ultra-short, initial and primary effects and mechanisms are amenable by the short-term microgravity provided by parabolic flight maneuvers. In consequence, man and experiment can board the Airbus A-300 ZERO-G in Bordeaux, France. On this flight you can experience 20 seconds of zero-g in free fall not just once, but 31 times in a row at an altitude of 5000 meters.


This is exactly what Prof. Ullrich from the University of Zurich and his team have been doing on a regular basis to help expand our knowledge surrounding astronauts’ ill-health when in space. Long-term manned space flights are often hindered when the astronaut begins to suffer several bodily ailments. For example astronauts are prone to infections and are also known to suffer from re-activation of dormant endoviruses. Gravity has been a constant force throughout evolutionary history on Earth. And therefore, it is one of the fundamental biological questions, if and how life on Earth requires gravity for complex cell functions. On Prof. Ullrichs team, the researchers use the parabolic flight to take a closer look at immune cells that have already been shown to be compromised by the suspension of gravity (Ullrich O and Thiel CS 2012; Stress Challenges and Immunity in Space, pp 187-202).


The team is working to find out how human immune cells sense and react to weightlessness. A chosen cell type to focus on are M2 macrophages. These cells are generated from peripheral blood mononuclear cells using PromoCell’s new Macrophage Generation Media DXF.

Being weightless is a hard job however! It means getting up at 5.30 in the morning, preparing yourself and the cells for the ride of your life, taking a dose of dazing scopolamine against parabolic flight sickness, boarding the A-300 ZERO-G and trying not to waist too much energy by getting nervous before you experience probably the most unique feeling ever: weightlessness. Parabolic flights taking off from Bordeaux are performed at an altitude of 5000 meters and take place in well-defined areas mainly over the atlantic ocean. Researchers from all over the world can apply to get the possibility of collecting data in microgravity. Each time the A-300 ZERO-G lifts off, it carries several projects from different research fields on board. It takes two pilots to operate the Airbus, one controlling the pitch of the airplane and the other being in charge of the lateral rotation called roll. Before the A-300 can enter the phase of weightlessness, it has to pull up at an angle that finally reaches 47°. During this pull up the passengers are exposed to up to 1.8 g. That’s quite a lot! At that time you can personally experience what it is like when centrifuging your cells at 200-350 g... And then, just before the peak of the parabola, the thrust is reduced and all goes quiet. After a couple of split seconds in which you ask yourself why you actually got on to this vehicle, you start free floating and know the answer: because this is the most thrilling ride of your life! The A-300 then crosses the peak and starts descending. Actually it falls without interference by the engines or brake flaps. One phase of weightlessness lasts around 20 seconds and then you are sedimented down to the floor of the aircraft by subtle onset of the pull out maneuver at 1.8 g again. At that point you are happy that you are not a cell being pelleted in a conical tube. After the pull out you get 1 minute to sort out your guts and then it starts all over again. Still coping with the situation?

Good, then you can do what you were actually recruited for, get a fresh pouch of cells out of the incubator, fix it to the tubing of the reagents supply in the experiment rack, store the old pouches in the cooling unit, secure everything including yourself and await the next butterflies swarm in your stomach. If you still don’t feel busy enough, you can expand your scope by exchanging broken needles of the tubing, hoses, clamps, insulations or whatever you are lucky to detect. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the interval between parabolas will be extended just for you. After five parabolas you start realizing that the manpower of other teams seems to be decreasing and after ten parabolas you discover the sick bay with very poorly looking people in the tail of the plane. Very briefly you think about joining them. However, after 12 parabolas you somehow get used to it, although you notice how exhausting this sequential sedimentation is starting to be, and after 15 parabolas you actually begin liking the feeling of being superman. And finally, by the 30th parabola you are sad that there’s only one more to go. After landing, there is still the lab job waiting