USF researcher joins NASA deep-sea mission

NASA NEEMO 22 space analog simulates mission to Mars

TAMPA, Fla. (June 9, 2017) – University of South Florida associate professor Dominic D’Agostino, PhD, is one of four crew members selected for the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) 22 expedition. He is the only member not affiliated with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or European Space Agency (ESA).

Members of the NEEMO 22 crew, from left:  Planetary scientist Trevor Graff, ESA astronaut Pedro Duque, NASA astronaut Commander Kjell Lindgren, and USF researcher Dominic D’Agostino of the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology.

The NEEMO 22 crew splash down to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean June 18, where they’ll spend 10 days in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary located six miles off the coast of Key Largo, simulating a deep space mission with similar objectives to exploration on Mars. Living and working at the bottom of the ocean mimics the harsh, microgravity environment they will experience in space. They’ll conduct simulated spacewalks, test time delays in communication, evaluate a variety of tools and procedures to be used in future space missions.

Dr. D’Agostino was selected for his research conducted at the USF Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory (HBRL) on how extreme environments impact the human body. One of the countermeasures developed is a method to induce and sustain nutritional ketosis with ketone supplement formulations. Nutritional ketosis shifts the body’s metabolic state to burn fat rather than glucose as its primary fuel.

The USF-patented method will play a pivotal role in advancing the objectives of the NEEMO 22 mission. Dr. D’Agostino will be in a constant state of nutritional ketosis, which is proven to preserve the genome, protecting DNA. This is beneficial to NASA as it can countermeasure neurological risks that come with space travel such as space radiation, lack of oxygen and stress of small spaces.

Dr. Dominic D’Agostino with his wife Dr. Csilla Ari D’Agostino (NEEMO support diver) at the NASA NBL training center.

No other crew members will be in this metabolic state, creating a baseline for how environmental factors impact the human body in such extreme conditions. Data will also be collected from the other crew members on gut microbiome, body composition, cognitive tasks, vision assessment, sleep quality and a variety of other physiological parameters.

Other objectives of the NEEMO 22 crew include testing counter measure equipment, technology for precisely tracking assets and assess hardware sponsored by the ESA that will help crew members evacuate someone who has been injured on a lunar spacewalk.

Dr.  D’Agostino is an associate professor in Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology and a certified diver.  He studies, develops and tests metabolic-based therapies, including ketogenic diets, ketone esters and ketone supplements, at the USF Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory, the only facility of its kind in the world. He is a member of various organizations including the Aerospace Medical Association and Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine Society. His wife, USF assistant professor Dr. Csilla Ari D’Agostino, will join the mission as a NEEMO support diver. She’s a certified dive master and cognitive neuroscientist.  

Dr. D’Agostino practices using the Mini DNA analyzer. This device will help the NEEMO 22 crew understand how the microbiome of the habitat is changing (i.e. any potential pathogenic microbes).

Dr. D’Agostino conducts his research and development of metabolic-based therapies at the USF Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory.