Scientists launch ‘worm-stronauts’ into space to study muscle loss

This week, hundreds of tiny worms will be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of a UK Space Agency-funded research project to investigate human muscle loss and how to prevent it.

The impact of zero gravity, and other differences in conditions, on astronauts carrying out months-long space missions is still relatively poorly understood. Among the most troubling impacts are muscular changes that occur as a result of human bodies – which evolved under the constant pull of Earth’s gravity – experiencing microgravity. Under these conditions, the musculoskeletal system does not have to support the body, resulting in muscle loss.

Scientists from Nottingham University and Exeter University will lead the project into these biological changes, using hardware designed by Oxford-based Kayser Space. The worms will be housed in culture bags inside 24 matchbox-sized experiment containers, each containing three culture bags. Once on board the ISS, these containers will be placed into the incubator in the station’s Columbus Module. The experiment will take place over five to six days.

The research will build on an experiment from 2018 and will test new molecular causes of, and potential therapies for, muscle loss during spaceflight. Discovering more about muscle loss in space will expand our understanding of the effect of ageing on muscles. This is valuable for developing more effective therapies and treatments for muscular dystrophy on Earth.

Science minister Amanda Solloway commented: “Experiments in space push the frontiers of knowledge and provide real-life benefits for the rest of us back on Earth. It is astonishing to think that sending worms into space could improve our health and help us lead longer lives and I am thrilled that UK researchers are leading this effort.”

The worms, C. elegans, share a surprising number of biological characteristics with humans and are similarly affected by biological changes in space, including alterations to muscle and the ability to use energy.

Professor Tim Etheridge, University of Exeter, said: “The experiment will give us even more new information on the molecules that cause muscle decline in space and whether targeting these with novel drugs and interventions can help. This information can then build the foundations for safely sending humans on long-term missions into deep space.”

Professor Bethan Philips, University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine, added: “Since the dawn of the space age, there have been concerns that space travel can be harmful to astronauts. We are very excited that this latest mission will enable us to build on the work we have already done to not only further explore what causes muscle loss with spaceflight, but to also look at how to prevent it. This work will have implications not only for astronauts but also for many situations on Earth.”

The experiment is due to launch to the ISS on the SpX-22, a Commercial Resupply Service mission contracted by NASA and flown by SpaceX using a Cargo Dragon 2 from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles