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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yummy Yogurt Made From Real Cosmonauts

If you can stomach the thought of swallowing a bacteria culture taken from the illustrious intestines of orbiting cosmonauts, then it might be time to try Russia's version of the right stuff - a soon-to-be-launched health food yogurt.

In the once top-secret Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, space scientists have spent almost two decades nurturing yogurt cultured from bacteria strained from the guts of some of Russia's top spacemen.

So far the space yogurt has been fed to a legion of cosmonauts who have braved life on board the space station Mir. Valery Polyakov, who holds the world record for the longest time in space, is even said to swear by it.

Now the culture is due to be produced commercially by a dairy in Kaluga and sold on the shelves of Russian supermarkets and kiosks in a cosmic variety of dairy products: yogurts, cheeses and juices in cherry, apricot, apple and peach flavors, under the brand names of Kosmicheskaya Ryazhenka, Aelita and Lantovit.

It's already on sale in Kaluga and in a few places in Moscow, but the full-scale launch is set for this fall.

The institute's microbiologists have spent decades researching the effects that the extreme conditions of space flight have on the human body. They claim the strains of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium they have been collecting from the astronauts' guts and using to make bioyogurts, or yogurts with active bacteria, have helped ward off infection when in space.

Even though the idea seems to have won a cool reception among Western microbiologists, the space connection could prove to be an ideal sales gimmick.

Now that the space race is over, the scarcity of funding for Russian science has forced scientists at the institute to offer the cultures for public consumption.

"Changes in our funding status after the fall of communism meant that we had to think of other ways of making sure we could continue our programs," said Nadezhda Lizko, a scientist who has headed the institute's microbiological investigations project ever since its inception in 1965.

The program began as an Earth-based investigation two years after Soviet hero Yury Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961. The Institute for Biomedical Problems was immediately founded on the recognition that space flight can have strange effects on the human body.

"We examined a group of volunteers on Earth for seven years first. We examined what happened to bacteria in the human body during conditions of weightlessness and in hyperkinetic surroundings and how the bacteria changed for each factor," Lizko said.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the project moved to a small lab at the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan, where testing on cosmonauts began.

"We were immediately surprised by the high bacteria levels in the cosmonauts that had begun training. It seemed they had been picked out well. They were extremely healthy specimens, with very stable levels of benign lactobacillus and bifidobacterium," she said.

However, as the launch date neared, stress levels rose, leaving a clear and harmful imprint on the cosmonauts' bacteria.

"For some people who react very badly to stress, these strains of bacteria can disappear," she said. "In the cosmonauts, levels were considerably lower just before flight."

The institute began straining the benign bacteria from the cosmonauts' digestive systems to develop a culture in 1978. Once the culture form was developed, it was dried into tablets the cosmonauts could take mid-flight in order to balance the damaging effects stress and the resulting bacterial imbalance could have on their immune system.

Later they began making the culture into yogurts and juices for consumption in space.

Lizko claims Russia's hardy cosmonauts relied on the bacteria cultures as a way of beating off infection while in space. The yogurts were sent up to space to help control the urinary tract infections that occurred on the Mir space station in 1989 and 1995.

She was coy about just how the scientists obtained the original bacteria from cosmonauts' guts, other than saying it involved "spatulas."

U.S. astronauts working with the scientists on the joint Apollo-Soyuz space programs of the '70s shunned the Soviet bacteria remedy, preferring instead to stick to other health precautions Lizko claims NASA has never disclosed.

It seems that the Western world may so far be keeping a skeptical distance. "There is some evidence in the literature that bioyogurt consumption may be helpful to women with recurrent urinary infections," said Professor Jeremy Hamilton-Miller, an expert in microbiology at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

"However, just because one type of lactobacillus or bifidobacterium was useful does not mean, again, that any old such organism will work. Bacterial strains of the same species are as different from each other as are human beings - some are good guys, others idle crooks.

"People are probably excited at the thought of being made healthier by consuming astronauts' gut flora, and if there is a placebo effect, so be it," he said. "I do not see it can do any harm, except to peoples' purses, which is the important thing," he said.

But, according to Lizko, Russia's cosmonauts just couldn't do without it.

"The first of our Russian cosmonauts to join the U.S. on the shuttle, Sergei Krikalyov, phoned the institute from the States demanding we send over a batch. He couldn't get it at NASA," she said.

"Once he went into intensive training, his wife phoned up asking us to send some more," she added.

Lizko claims that increasing damage to the ecology is having a harmful effect on the bacterial levels in the human system. "Hopefully our products will help guard against this," she said.