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Crabs in space: Preparations underway for students' experiment monitoring crabs in simulated space travel

An international team of undergraduate students from the University of Aberdeen are making final preparations before travelling next week (Tuesday, 27 August) to Bordeaux to undertake an experiment in the European Space Agency Parabolic Flight Campaign.

The University of Aberdeen's Molecular & Cell Biology team have been selected along with 29 other projects for the annual Campaign from over 120 applicants from across Europe and are the only Scottish team to be selected to attend.

The students' experiment is the first of its kind and aims to non-invasively monitor activity in large nerve cells of crabs. The crabs are being used to help Nasa scientists protect the astronauts of the future from potentially dangerous side effects of space travel.

The crabs in space programme is the work of Dr Peter Fraser, from the University's Zoology Department. He has been a crab expert for over 30 years and having found that crabs have balancing systems partially like humans, is leading the experiment with four undergraduate students from his cell biology and immunology class.

Dr Fraser said: "It is safe to say that this will be a scientific first. The students will be taking the crabs up in a parabolic flight, which shoots up in to the air like an arrow. There then follows a period of about 20 seconds when the plane is basically in free-fall and everything starts floating around. This student project will greatly strengthen my own research work on hydrostatic pressure, gravity and equilibrium reception, which also aims to develop a compensatory regime for microgravity."

By sending the crabs into weightless flight, Dr Fraser hopes he can monitor their nerve cells and use the information to help Nasa reduce the long-term effects on space travellers. He added: "We will be monitoring the crabs' nerve cells during the 20-30 second periods of free-fall by attaching sensors to them so that we can see how they react. Crabs have a small number of large nerve cells which makes it easier to study."

Eight crabs from Aberdeen will be sent on the simulated space flight next week to monitor the reactions of their nervous systems. Their balancing systems have so much in common with those of humans, and the data collected will be a key part of ongoing research into the long-term effects of weightless space travel on the human body. Crabs have complex balancing systems demonstrated by a well co-ordinated, highly variable walking pattern and their easy transition between walking and swimming.

Roberto Araujo, 21, from Portugal, is one of the students who will be taking part in the groundbreaking research. "We have been picked out of 120 teams to take part in this flight so we have been very lucky to have been given the chance to take part. We are all really excited and are counting down until next Tuesday when we fly out to Bordeaux," he said.

The research findings have potential medical applications for human health in long space journeys and human aid prosthetics, robotics with balancing systems and engineering for guided drills.

The team of biology students from Aberdeen won the chance to take the parabolic flight after entering a competition run by the European Space Agency.

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University of Aberdeen
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Ref: 1039crabs
Date: August 22, 2002