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Fruit fly astronauts set to live for generations in space

Some tiny astronauts are scheduled to fly up to the International Space Station to help scientists model the effects of long-term space exposure on humans.

Most people wouldn't want to welcome a bunch of flies into their incredibly cramped living quarters. Astronauts on board the International Space Station aren't most people. They'll soon be greeting a host of fruit flies set to arrive in late summer as part of a new NASA project called the Fruit Fly Lab.

The fruit flies are standing in for humans for a study that will focus on the impact of space-living on the immune system. "The Fruit Fly Lab will allow us to look into a variety of questions, such as the effect of space flight on aging, cardiovascular fitness, sleep, stress, and much more," says Sharmila Bhattacharya from NASA's Ames Research Center.

It turns out that humans have a lot in common with fruit flies, an insect NASA describes as having "pin-sized brains." "About 77 percent of known human disease genes have a recognizable match in the genetic code of fruit flies, and 50 percent of fly protein sequences have mammalian analogues," says Bhattacharya.

The flies won't get a free run around the ISS. Instead, they'll be living in a special habitat where cameras will record their every move, kind of like a flies-in-space version of "Big Brother." Some of the flies will be frozen and sent back to Earth for study as the project goes along.

This won't be the first time fruit flies have been sent into orbit, but a previous experiment on the Space Shuttle Discovery lasted a brief 13 days. This time, the flies will have the opportunity to go through multiple generations as part of an effort to study the potential effects of longer term space travel, such as humans would experience on a mission to Mars. It may turn out that the humble fruit fly ends up playing a key role in getting humans safely to the Red Planet.