Principal investigator, Tim Etheridge, as well as other scientists are sending worms to the International Space Station to look at muscle loss in space.
VIDEO COURTESY OF TIM ETHERIDGE
MELBOURNE, Fla. – When SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday for the International Space Station, it will be carrying some unusual passengers – actually, 36,000 of them.
Worms. Wriggling, slimy worms in plastic bags.
If you’re curious why NASA, let alone the three astronauts on board the station, would want to fly bags of worms into orbit, it turns out worms are more like people than you might think. How they react in space could be key to figuring out ways to keep humans healthy on long space trips to Mars and beyond.
Spaceflight poses many hazards to people, one of the most prevalent being muscle weakening. In fact, astronauts in space for six months or longer can lose up to 40 percent of their muscle mass.
Worms too have muscles, and scientists from around the world want to see what happens to them in orbit. Scientists from Exeter, Nottingham and Lancaster universities partnered with the United Kingdom Space Agency and other teams around the world to work on the Molecular Muscle Experiment. Countries represented by other teams include the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Greece.
“(Worms) are genetically very similar to people,” Tim Etheridge, principal investigator on the project and senior lecturer at the University of Exeter, said. “Their muscles look very similar. They’re structured almost identically; their molecular makeup and the way they metabolize is similar with people.”
The worms are practical, too: Since they’re only about 0.04 inches in length, they don’t take up much space, they grow quickly and astronauts aboard the ISS don’t have to become too involved in the experiment (something they might be very happy about).
The 36,000 microscopic worms of the Caenorhabditis elegans species will not only help scientists figure out the reasons for muscle loss in space, but they might also provide clues for treatments for earthbound diseases such as muscular dystrophy and diabetes.
The Falcon 9 launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is scheduled for 1:38 p.m. EST Tuesday.
Though scientists still don’t understand the causes behind space muscle loss, some believe it’s similar to the aging process of humans on Earth.
“As we age, our muscles get smaller, they get weaker,” Etheridge said. “These are all the same changes that occur in astronauts, but just on a much shorter time frame,”
That’s where the worms come in.
C. elegans were chosen as the ideal test subject because they are the first multicellular critter to have had their whole genome sequenced, which is the process of determining the complete genetic makeup of an organism.
“They’re just a really, really strong model for space biology in particular,” Etheridge said.
Though C. elegans have already been used in other NASA experiments to study spaceflight muscle loss, this will be the first time scientists will target specific genes to try to prevent muscle loss, Nate Szewcyzk, professor of space biology at the University of Nottingham, said.
Scientists will try to promote mutations in the worms or target specific molecules in their bodies either through genetic manipulation or via drugs to figure out what might hinder muscle loss.
“The novel thing about this (experiment) is we’re going to target those genes that change reproducibly in space and see whether stopping those from happening make muscle healthier,” Etheridge said.
The worms will be refrigerated throughout the launch in plastic bags along with liquid bacterial food. The cold will put them in a state of hibernation for the journey. Once on board the ISS, astronauts will place them in an incubator to wake them up.
Since the worms grow quickly, the project will only last about six days.
The worms will produce their own offspring on board and the offspring will mature and reproduce as well. Though 36,000 worms are being flown initially, scientists expect the number to rise to about 3 million by the time the experiment is over.
Once those last baby worms are adults, they will be frozen for the return trip back to Earth where they will be sent to labs around the world for further analysis, Etheridge said.
The UK team will focus on studying the molecular and genetic changes in the worms to see if they look healthier than the worms in a control group that had no interventions.
Teams will look at the effect of genes thought to be important for regulating exercise responses as well as genes associated with nerve cell health, Szewczyk said. Testing will last approximately six to 12 months.
The project’s cost was about $2.5 million, according to Libby Jackson, a program manager with the UK Space Agency.
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