The purpose of this investigation was to study the effects of a 17-day spaceflight on the contractile properties of individual fast- and slow-twitch fibers isolated from biopsies of the fast-twitch gastrocnemius muscle of four male astronauts. Single chemically skinned fibers were studied during maximal Ca2+-activated contractions with fiber myosin heavy chain (MHC) isoform expression subsequently determined by SDS gel electrophoresis. Spaceflight had no significant effect on the mean diameter or specific force of single fibers expressing type I, IIa, or IIa/IIx MHC, although a small reduction in average absolute force (Po) was observed for the type I fibers (0.68 ± 0.02 vs. 0.64 ± 0.02 mN, P < 0.05). Subject-by-flight interactions indicated significant intersubject variation in response to the flight, as postflight fiber diameter and Po where significantly reduced for the type I and IIa fibers obtained from one astronaut and for the type IIa fibers from another astronaut. Average unloaded shortening velocity [V o, in fiber lengths (FL)/s] was greater after the flight for both type I (0.60 ± 0.03 vs. 0.76 ± 0.02 FL/s) and IIa fibers (2.33 ± 0.25 vs. 3.10 ± 0.16 FL/s). Postflight peak power of the type I and IIa fibers was significantly reduced only for the astronaut experiencing the greatest fiber atrophy and loss of Po. These results demonstrate that 1) slow and fast gastrocnemius fibers show little atrophy and loss of Po but increased V o after a typical 17-day spaceflight, 2) there is, however, considerable intersubject variation in these responses, possibly due to intersubject differences in in-flight physical activity, and 3) in these four astronauts, fiber atrophy and reductions in Po were less for slow and fast fibers obtained from the phasic fast-twitch gastrocnemius muscle compared with slow and fast fibers obtained from the slow antigravity soleus [J. J. Widrick, S. K. Knuth, K. M. Norenberg, J. G. Romatowski, J. L. W. Bain, D. A. Riley, M. Karhanek, S. W. Trappe, T. A. Trappe, D. L. Costill, and R. H. Fitts. J Physiol (Lond) 516: 915–930, 1999].

  • muscle atrophy
  • muscle disuse
  • microgravity
  • nonweight bearing
  • myosin heavy chain


  • This study was supported by National Aeronautics and Space Administration grant NAS9-18768 to R. H. Fitts.

  • Address for reprint requests and other correspondence: R. H. Fitts, Marquette Univ., Dept. of Biology, Wehr Life Sciences Bldg., P.O. Box 1881, Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881 (E-mail:robert.fitts{at}mu.edu).

  • The costs of publication of this article were defrayed in part by the payment of page charges. The article must therefore be hereby marked “advertisement” in accordance with 18 U.S.C. Section 1734 solely to indicate this fact.

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