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What killed the chickens?

What killed the chickens?

The deaths of 16 embryonic chickens that rode into orbit with the space shuttle Discovery last month have raised questions that could bear on the development of living creatures whose lives begin in reduced gravity, such as aboard a space station. The experiment, devised by John Vellinger, now a student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., sought to determine whether chickens from eggs that spent five days aboard the shuttle would develop any differently from a control batch of fertilized eggs kept on the ground.

Sixteen eggs were fertilized nine days before Discovery's March 13 launch, and another 16 only two days before the mission began. The older chickens hatched and were still alive and well this week, but half the younger ones were found dead when their eggs were opened just after landing. The rest were placed in an incubator, but they, too, have failed to hatch, says veterinary anatomist Ronald L. Hullinger of Purdue, who is Vellinger's faculty adviser.

"We don't know why the embryos stopped developing," Vellinger says, "but it happened sometime after the launch." According to Hullinger, there is a possibility that one egg the researchers opened early many not have been fertilized. Some of the embryos appeared as though they might have been viable when placed in the incubator, he adds, but additional study will be required to make sure.

Factors that might have played a role in the deaths include how long each egg spent in the hen's reproductive tract and how long after laying each egg was collected. But Hullinger says the effect of reduced gravity in orbit really do seem to be what counted. The embryos that died, he notes, were all in the first trimester of their 21-day development, while the older ones orbited during their second trimester. Future studies, says Hullinger, ought to focus on when the survival difference occurs.
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Title Annotation:deaths of 16 embryonic chickens from space shuttle Discovery
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 8, 1989
Words:315
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