The loss of bone mass and alteration in bone physiology during space flight are one of the major health risks for astronauts. Although the lack of weight bearing in microgravity is considered a risk factor for bone loss and possible osteoporosis, organisms living in space are also exposed to cosmic radiation and other environmental stress factors. As such, it is still unclear as to whether and by how much radiation exposure contributes to bone loss during space travel, and whether the effects of microgravity and radiation exposure are additive or synergistic. Bone is continuously renewed through the resorption of old bone by osteoclast cells and the formation of new bone by osteoblast cells. In this study, we investigated the combined effects of microgravity and radiation by evaluating the maturation of a hematopoietic cell line to mature osteoclasts. RAW 264.7 monocyte/macrophage cells were cultured in rotating wall vessels that simulate microgravity on the ground. Cells under static 1g or simulated microgravity were exposed to γ rays of varying doses, and then cultured in receptor activator of nuclear factor-κB ligand (RANKL) for the formation of osteoclast giant multinucleated cells (GMCs) and for gene expression analysis. Results of the study showed that radiation alone at doses as low as 0.1 Gy may stimulate osteoclast cell fusion as assessed by GMCs and the expression of signature genes such as tartrate resistant acid phosphatase (Trap
) and dendritic cell-specific transmembrane protein (Dcstamp
). However, osteoclast cell fusion decreased for doses greater than 0.5 Gy. In comparison to radiation exposure, simulated microgravity induced higher levels of cell fusion, and the effects of these two environmental factors appeared additive. Interestingly, the microgravity effect on osteoclast stimulatory transmembrane protein (Ocstamp
) and Dcstamp
expressions was significantly higher than the radiation effect, suggesting that radiation may not increase the synthesis of adhesion molecules as much as microgravity.
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