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Space Experiments Expand Possibilities for the Future - Results from the Japanese Experiment Module Kibo -

Living Creatures Are Works of Art

Q. Have you always had an interest in space experiments?

Dr. Asashima smiles at the results from the Dome Gene Experiment.
Dr. Asashima smiles at the results from the Dome Gene Experiment.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata working on the Dome Gene Experiment. (Courtesy: NASA/JAXA) Astronaut Koichi Wakata working on the Dome Gene Experiment. (Courtesy: NASA/JAXA)

I did always have an interest in space experiments, and when astronaut Chiaki Mukai flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1994, I had the opportunity to participate. I took part in one of 82 scientific experiments on that mission, which included some with newt’s eggs.
All biologists are the same, but I have an interest in evolution - in the birth of life. Space is where life originated. One of the forces that stabilize life on Earth is gravity; another major force that alters life is radiation. These two forces represent space. For that reason, I think it is absolutely necessary to perform experiments in space to study the process of how our body mechanism was created. Q. Through the Kibo experiment, what did you learn about space and life? I sent frog kidney cells to space, and these cells showed me various changes that we’ve never seen on Earth. They showed us a world that we’d never imagined before. Something that was hidden on Earth became visible in space, and other things became invisible in space. Watching these changes, I felt how awesome living creatures are. There’s a rhythm to the development of cells, and the process is beautiful. I think living creatures are works of art.
Space is a very cruel environment that has powerful radiation, drastic temperature changes, and no air. Despite the harshness of the environment, humans can live there, at least on the ISS. The long-term space expeditions of Japanese astronauts have reminded us how amazing life is. After 3.8 billion years of history, the era of human life in space has arrived. I think it will allow us to learn more about where human life is going in the future, and how flexible and adaptable we are. I think people will also understand that the Earth’s environment is special, and that it’s balanced between stability and instability. Q. What do you think is the interesting part of science? The interesting part of science is learning about the unknown by trying new things, understanding what you haven’t previously understood, and making the invisible visible. When you learn something new, something interesting and amazing can emerge in an explosive manner. I think science begins with the questions, "Why? How?" So I would particularly love the children of today to cherish this type of curiosity.

Reform Japan Through the Power of Science

Q. What kind of life science experiments do you want to perform in Kibo in the future?

Rice fish from the group grown for use in space experiments. (Courtesy: University of Tokyo)
Rice fish from the group grown for use in space experiments. (Courtesy: University of Tokyo)

I’d like to study how many generations it takes for rice fish to alter, how these changes work, and how the fish’s behaviour changes. Rice fish grow very quickly - they go from roe to adult fish that can spawn in about three months. So during a long-term ISS expedition, astronauts can observe two or even three generations. The rice fish’s body is see-through, so we can observe not only how they swim, but also their circulatory system and cardiac muscles.
Rice fish are very familiar living organisms to the Japanese, and research on them has a very long history. I’d like to use these fish to perform unique research, originated in Japan. The rice fish genome is completely decoded, and we know that there are some genes similar to those of humans. Thus, when humanity aims to travel to the Moon and Mars in the future, this research could give us very important data.

Q. What are your expectations for Japanese space development?

I think Japan’s space technology is very advanced. For instance, last year Japan launched the H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV), which is a transporter to the ISS. What surprised the world at that time was that we docked this six-tonne vehicle with the ISS on our very first launch. This is Japanese scientific technology at its best. Japan has fewer natural resources, and various social issues such as a low birthrate, but I hope the power of science and technology will help rebuild Japan. The ISS is an international symbol of space science, yet we can use this wonderful Japanese technology to contribute to the world’s most advanced scientific project.
There are many mysterious phenomena in space and Kibo is a place to solve these mysteries. At the same time, there are many experiment topics that make the eyes of younger generations sparkle. I’d like younger people to know more about this, and hope a system can be organized to fund their participation in space research.

Q. What are your future goals?

I’d love to look into the question "what is life?" with new eyes, by taking the extensive capabilities of life science to space. I'd like to think about this new biology in various ways, from the point of view of adaptability, evolution, diversity, and so on. I'd like to learn more about the unseen power of humanity.
In the current circumstance of promoting environmental issues, people often talk about "re-examining the Earth."What specific part of the Earth do we need to re-examine? I think we need to re-examine humanity from a new point of view. To do that, we need to learn from other living creatures. For example, humans sometimes faint when their body temperature goes up by four degrees to 40°C, but amphibians such as newts and frogs handle such changes without any problems. They have better adaptability, so there should be something we can learn from them. By learning about other living organisms, I’d like to deepen our understanding of ourselves and think about coexistence with other living organisms.

Makoto Asashima, Ph.D.

Research professor at the University of Tokyo, Director of the Research Center for Stem Cell Engineering at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology
Dr. Asashima completed his Ph.D. in science at the University of Tokyo in 1972. After working as a researcher at the Institute of Biology of the Free University of Berlin in Germany, and as a professor at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Yokohama City University, he became a professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tokyo, in 1993. He was posted as a professor of the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1996, and became Dean there in 2003. In 2005, Dr. Asashima became a vice president of the Science Council of Japan. In 2006, he became a laboratory administrator at the Organ Development Engineering Research Institute, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST). He was Associate Dean and a member of the board of directors at the University of Tokyo in 2007-08. In 2009 he became a senior fellow at the Center for Research and Development Strategy of the Japan Science and Technology Agency, and rose to his current position, as a director at the Research Center for Stem Cell Engineering at AIST in April 2010.
In 1989, Dr. Asashima discovered the protein activin, which induces cell differentiation. Subsequently, he created 22 organs, such as the heart and kidney, opening the door to regenerative medicine. He has received many awards, including the Zoological Science Award in 1990, the Franz von Siebold Award from the German government in 1994, the Japanese Medal of Honor in 2001, the Imperial and Japan Academy Prizes, and the Erwin Stein Award in 2008. In 2008, he was selected by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology as an individual who has made outstanding cultural contributions. His specializes in developmental biology.

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