By Joseph Altman Jr.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
They are bugs in space, but it is not a spin-off of a cheesy TV sitcom.
Instead, 54 Manduca sexta (tobacco hornworms) will be launched into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on June 22.
The study, by University of Arizona biochemistry Professor Marc Tischler, is to show the effects of weightlessness on the early development of the insects. He wants to find out how gravity affects the development of life, and he said insects provide a model for looking at the effects of gravity.
Tischler said he has already found that hornworms have some means of sensing gravity, but now he is trying to discover whether altering gravity will affect their development, which he said will add to the basic knowledge of gravity as an important factor on earth.
Tischler has been researching "gravitational biology" for some time, performing experiments with NASA and in the lab. His experiments since 1981 include sending rats into space and using animals in the lab.
In the lab, Tischler said he uses an apparatus that prevents animals from putting weight on their legs to study the effect of weightlessness and muscle wasting.
He said a 1991 experiment showed that lab models did well at mimicking the effects of weightlessness.
Just recently, Tischler began using insects, but said "we didn't expect to find anything."
Instead, Tischler said gravity seems to have some effect on hormones in insects. He is now focusing on the effect of weightlessness on human hormones.
"We may find a link or we may not," he said. "But it adds to our basic knowledge."
A grant from NASA is allowing Tischler to send his hornworms into space.
The shuttle normally carries enough supplies for two weeks, but since the Discovery mission will only last eight days, NASA finds experiments to utilize the empty locker space.
Tischler's experiment will put three canisters, each 15 inches high and four and one half inches in diameter aboard the shuttle. Three more canisters will stay on the ground as controls.
Tischler said his project poses "a very simple question that can only be answered by making use of space flight."
Since the experiment requires minimal time from the crew of the shuttle, NASA chose the project to go aboard Discovery.
Tischler said he will begin shipping eggs to NASA twice a week starting in late April. NASA will be set up to prepare the eggs for the experiment.
While large numbers of insects will be raised to get ready for the test, only 54 of the creatures will get a free ride on the shuttle.
He said there is a 60-hour window in the insect's lifecycle in which gravity will affect its development.
The hornworms used in the experiment must have started to undergo metamorphosis, but "not too far so we can't see any effect," he said.
While Tischler has an interest in the results of the project, so do students at 30 schools in the Tucson Unified School District.
Tischler said he has been working with students as part of the "Manduca project," which allows children to learn about science hands-on and study the insect and its growth.
"It's a way to turn kids on to science," he said. "The first-graders have more questions than college students."
Ernesto Archuleta, a biochemistry and Spanish freshman, said Tischler does much more than personal research, including advising for the Undergraduate Biology Research Program.
"(He) does research in all different fields and also goes out and speaks to different schools, talks about research and gets people interested," Archuleta said. "He's a firm believer in the value and potential of the human being."
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