Hibernating bears could be the answer to us going into deep space

10 Jul 2015

Mankind’s ability to one day be able to withstand the physical challenges of deep space travel might lie here on Earth, all thanks to the large, furry and sometimes deadly creature known as the bear.

The bear’s method of helping us travel to deep space doesn’t stem from some unknown species of super-intelligent bears who have discovered warp speed, but rather comes from how the bear’s body changes during hibernation.

As part of a research paper published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, a team of researchers looked at hibernating bears and how their bodies change during that period of months-long sleep to see if it could be harnessed for humans.

The subject of deep space travel is much discussed within science and space agencies due to the fact that prolonged exposure to weightlessness in current astronauts has shown that human bones degrade quickly without gravity, as they are not used as much, if at all.

For this reason, daily exercise is essential to maintaining bone density for astronauts, particularly aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but if we are to live for years at a time in space, a better solution is needed.

According to The Guardian, throughout hibernation, the bear’s body will stop releasing calcium into its bones, which greatly reduces the bone’s degradation.

This process is controlled in black bears by the release of two enzymes. Additionally, increased levels of a protein known as cocaine and amphetamine regulated transcript (CART) slows down the bone degeneration by as much as 15-times the regular rate.

Speaking of the potential for further study, Dr Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at the University of Leicester in the UK, said: “If we can look to nature and try to understand how existing biological systems, such as those in hibernating black bears, can overcome bone loss, we can use this knowledge to protect our own species in space.”

Bear in space illustration, via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic