7. Results: Biosphere 2 Status Report: The Human Dimension

OVERVIEW:

The Biosphere experiment has proven successful in the human dimension as well, offering valuable insights into how we live, how we organize our tasks and our time, and how we can maintain good health. In the field of nutrition, Biosphere 2 marked the first time that a human group consuming a rigorously controlled, calorie-restricted, nutritionally dense diet has been systematically studied over a two-year period. This regime has been extensively studied in laboratory animals, and has been found to have substantial health benefits. Researchers now have evidence that humans respond in the same way.

HEALTH CARE IN THE BIOSPHERE:

Biosphere 2 includes a medical facility designed to deal with all but extreme medical requirements. It includes stocks of many medicines and antibiotics, facilities for examination, x-ray equipment, equipment and supplies for minor surgery and treatment of injuries, including broken bones. One of the eight crew is a medical doctor and another has received paramedical training. The Biosphere also has a veterinary facility for care and treatment of domesticated animals (goats, chickens).

Each Biospherian was given a thorough physical examination and lab workup at least once every two months by the crew’s medical officer. Crew members were weighed on a monthly basis.

The medical officer treated Biospherians for a range of minor medical problems: lower back pain, occasional diarrhea, two episodes of anaphylaxis, one eye infection, occasional urinary tract infections. Only one medical emergency occurred in Biosphere 2: three weeks after closure, Jane Poynter had an accident with a rice threshing machine that severed the tip of a finger. In accordance with mission rules, the crew’s medical officer decided that treatment by a specialist was in order, and Poynter left the Biosphere through its air lock for a period of five hours. She has made a complete recovery.

The two significant medical issues encountered inside Biosphere 2 both emerged as a result of unexpected environmental conditions: a substantial weight loss on the part of all eight crew members due to smaller- than-expected crop yields; and altitude sickness due to an unpredicted decline in the atmosphere’s oxygen content.

The low oxygen concentration – at its lowest point, equivalent to the oxygen concentration at about 9,500 above sea level – caused some crew members to experience fatigue, disrupted sleep and shortness of breath.

NUTRITION:

Calorie intake averaged 2,000 calories per day for the first ten months, gradually rising to 2,200 calories.

The crew ate three meals a day, with equal portions served to each individual regardless of size or gender. Meals were totally consumed and no other food (with the exception of fresh herbs for seasoning) was eaten.

The Biospherians’ diet was calorically restricted but nutrient-dense. A computer program monitored the daily nutritional content of their meals. While low in vitamins D and B12 and calcium, the diet supplied sufficient amounts of all other essential nutrients. It contained adequate protein, was high in fiber, and low in cholesterol and fat. Vitamin/mineral supplements were taken.

The Biospherians’ diet included six varieties of fruits, five cereal grains, split peas, peanuts, three varieties of beans, 19 vegetables and greens, white and sweet potato, and small quantities of goat milk and yogurt. Goat meat, pork, chicken, fish, and eggs were consumed in relatively small quantities.

The Biospherians’ unexpectedly restricted diet provided a rare opportunity to investigate the effects of this regime on health and especially on indicators related to aging in humans (Medical officer Roy Walford has published numerous scientific papers and books on this subject).

On average, the Biospherians lost 16 percent of their body weight. Most of the weight loss occurred during the first six months; after that the crew members’ weight stabilized.

Crew members registered a sizable decrease in blood cholesterol level (from an average of approximately 195 to about 125). The average decrease in blood cholesterol was 35 percent. These results suggest that even in people who are not obese, calorie restriction (as well as fat restriction) decreases total serum cholesterol.

There have also been reductions in blood pressure, white blood cell count, and fasting blood sugar levels. All other measurements were normal, and showed no significant change from pre-closure levels.

Low-calorie, nutrient-dense diets have been found to produce similar physiological changes in various species of animals tested in laboratories, ranging from unicellular organisms to rodents.

In summary, the Biospherians’ experience suggests that dramatic and possibly beneficial changes in physiological risk factors can be produced by means of dietary changes.

OTHER ASPECTS OF THE HUMAN DIMENSION:

Human dynamics: In Biosphere 2, the first crew of eight worked out decision-making mechanisms that allowed them to spend two years together, voluntarily, without any “walkouts.”

Organizational dynamics: Implementing Biosphere 2 required the wise and efficient coordination of human resources. The project brought a wide range of scientists and technicians together with corporate leaders, architects, construction managers and crews, finance experts, researchers, information managers, telecommunications experts, educators, public affairs specialists, physicians, attorneys, etc.

Adaptability: Biosphere 2’s economy of scarcity fostered considerable creativity. The Biospherians had to call upon all of their ingenuity and inner resources to solve problems and improve efficiency. This includes ingenuity in cuisine (reflected in Sally Silverstone’s cookbook, Eating In).

People as system sensors: The crew lived up to the expectation that the humans in Biosphere 2 would be the system’s most perceptive “sensors,” often detecting problems or asking apt questions before electronic sensors picked up a problem.

Time management: Time proved to be the most scarce commodity in the Biosphere. The crew maintained detailed logs of their time, and will be able to help future crews analyze, streamline, or eliminate a broad range of tasks.

Cultural insights: The crew’s experience offered a number of cultural insights, such as the great importance of celebrations and feasts.

 

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