Scientist planning to send microscopic worms into space for muscle development study

July 20, 2015, University of Exeter
Scientist planning to send microscopic worms into space for muscle development study
A nematode worm of the species Caenorhabditis elegans

A University of Exeter scientist is set to send thousands of microscopic worms on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in an experiment aimed at increasing our understanding of what triggers the body to build and lose muscle.

Dr Timothy Etheridge's study was announced as the UK Space Agency published its National Strategy for Space Environments and Human Spaceflight.

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 agencies, three new experiments led by UK research teams were selected for further definition. Of these, two were the top-ranked proposals in Europe in terms of scientific merit, judged to be 'outstanding' by the international review panel.

One is led by Dr Etheridge of Sport and Health Sciences, who studies muscle decline in space and potential ways of counteracting this. 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.

Dr Etheridge said: "As the world's space agencies plan longer, more ambitious missions, this poses a major challenge. Astronauts lose as much as 40% of muscle mass after 180 days onboard the International Space Station.

"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."

The researchers 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 International Space Station to live and produce offspring for five and a half days, before being frozen by the astronauts and returned to Dr Etheridge's lab for analysis of health.

The UK has a strong research base and is rapidly establishing itself as a key player in space environments research.

Dr David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: "Our new national strategy is all about making the most of space: exploiting the unique opportunities for growth which human spaceflight and associated research programmes can offer. I'm immensely proud of British scientists, who really are among the world's best, as demonstrated by the strong showing in the recent international space life sciences competition. Space and are two areas where the UK has a proud heritage and the UK Space Agency is committed to helping researchers access unique facilities such as the ISS."

Dr Etheridge has conducted previous space experiments with C. elegans, the last in 2009 when worms blasted off alongside astronauts on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Explore further: Research into the health impacts of human spaceflight

Related Stories

Research into the health impacts of human spaceflight

July 15, 2015

Pioneering research from the University of Southampton into the health impacts of spaceflight has been identified as a possible experiment to be conducted by British astronaut Tim Peake on his maiden voyage to the International ...

Microscopic worms could help open up travel into deep space

June 2, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A space flight by millions of microscopic worms could help us overcome the numerous threats posed to human health by space travel. The Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) have also given experts an insight ...

Why roundworms are ideal for space studies

May 25, 2015

Humans have long been fascinated by the cosmos. Ancient cave paintings show that we've been thinking about space for much of the history of our species. The popularity of recent sci-fi movies suggest that the human mind ...

Cheek muscles hold up better than leg muscles in space

June 30, 2015

It is well known that muscles need resistance (gravity) to maintain optimal health, and when they do not have this resistance, they deteriorate. A new report published in the July 2015 issue of The FASEB Journal, however, ...

Recommended for you

The epoch of planet formation, times twenty

December 12, 2018

Astronomers have cataloged nearly 4,000 exoplanets in orbit around distant stars. Though the discovery of these newfound worlds has taught us much, there is still a great deal we do not know about the birth of planets and ...

Periodic radio signal detected from the blazar J1043+2408

December 12, 2018

Using Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), astronomers have detected a periodic signal in the radio light curve of the blazar J1043+2408, which could be helpful in improving our understanding about the nature of blazars ...

Juno mission halfway to Jupiter science

December 12, 2018

On Dec. 21, at 8:49:48 a.m. PST (11:49:48 a.m. EST) NASA's Juno spacecraft will be 3,140 miles (5,053 kilometers) above Jupiter's cloud tops and hurtling by at a healthy clip of 128,802 mph (207,287 kilometers per hour). ...

Rosetta witnesses birth of baby bow shock around comet

December 12, 2018

A new study reveals that, contrary to first impressions, Rosetta did detect signs of an infant bow shock at the comet it explored for two years – the first ever seen forming anywhere in the solar system.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.