Microscopic worms may soon hitch a ride to International Space Station

  • International Space StationInternational Space Station AgenciesGetty Images

Scientists are planning to send thousands of microscopic worms to the International Space Station (ISS) in an experiment aimed at understanding what triggers the body to build and lose muscle.

In a recent international call for new life sciences experiments to be flown on the ISS, coordinated by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japanese and Canadian space agencies, three new experiments led by UK research teams were selected for further consideration.

One of the experiments is led by Dr Timothy Etheridge of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter, who studies muscle decline in space and potential ways of counteracting this. Etheridge’s team will use a nematode worm species called Caenorhabditis elegans – or ‘C elegans’ – which are highly useful for studying long term changes in human physiology because they suffer from muscle loss under many of the same conditions that people do.

The worms, which are too small to be seen by the naked eye, will be placed in small bags of liquid food and flown to the ISS to live and produce offspring for five and a half days, before being frozen by the astronauts and returned to Etheridge’s lab for analysis of muscle health.

Muscle weakness and reduced muscle mass are significant problems with spaceflight, but the research findings also have wider potential application in ways to help people with muscular dystrophy and diabetes, people immobilised by casts and the elderly.

The experiment, likely to take place between 2017-2020, might therefore improve our understanding of human health here on Earth, as well as the effects of long duration human space travel. “As the world’s space agencies plan longer, more ambitious missions, this poses a major challenge. Astronauts lose as much as 40 per cent of muscle mass after 180 days onboard the International Space Station,” Etheridge said.

“Perhaps more worryingly, because muscle carries out several metabolic processes such as burning glucose and fat for energy, this level of muscle wasting could help lead to metabolic ailments such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. “These experiments will provide the first definitive demonstration of the mechanisms underlying muscle loss in space, and help to develop targeted therapies to lessen the problem in the future,” he said.


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