Worms in space: The Molecular Muscle Experiments


10 September 2018 12:40
astronaut Tim Peake in space © NASA
Astronaut Tim Peake exercising in space

A team of scientists are working together on an exciting project to send worms into space in a bid to discover more about muscle loss during space flight.

The experiment by researchers from Nottingham, Exeter and Lancaster Universities will see microscopic worms flown to the International Space Station later this year to try to understand what causes astronauts to suffer from spaceflight-induced muscle loss.

Spaceflight is an extreme environment that causes many negative health changes to the body, and astronauts can lose up to 40 per cent of their muscle after six months in space; the equivalent of ageing up to 40 years in terms of loss of strength.

This muscle loss could reduce in-flight performance and threaten astronaut health on longer missions. 

The worms being used in the Molecular Muscle Experiment are known as C. elegans. Despite being only 1mm long in adulthood, they share many essential biological characteristics with humans. Previous experiments have shown they display similar biological changes in space to humans, including alterations to muscle and the ability to use energy.

Sam Gyimah, Science Minister, said: “It’s not every day that you hear of the potential health benefits of sending worms into space, but this crucial project which is also the first of its kind, could lead to better treatment for muscular conditions for people on Earth as well as improving the wellbeing of our astronauts.

“Along with our commitment through the modern Industrial Strategy to support our space sector to go from strength to strength, our world-leading research sector is consistently pushing the boundaries of existing knowledge for the benefit of all.”

Dr Chris Gaffney, Lecturer in Sports Science at Lancaster Medical School, is a member of the Scientific Team who has been centrally involved in the project.

He has just returned from Switzerland where he participated in Experimental Sequence Testing (EST), in preparation for the launch from Florida later this year.

As well as benefitting spaceflight and scientific exploration of the solar system, Dr Gaffney considers the Molecular Muscle Experiment to have benefits closer to home in the treatment of ageing and conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes.

Dr Gaffney said: “If we ever want to go to Mars or undertake long-term exploratory spaceflight, then muscle atrophy is a problem that we must solve. As it stands, it would be unethical to send someone to Mars knowing the potential consequences to their health on their return.

“The work we are doing is also very relevant to understanding the ageing process, as spaceflight is considered a model of accelerated ageing. With an ageing population, new insights from this experiment are more relevant than ever.”

Preparations to send worms into space have been taking place, with the recent visit to Switzerland for testing the latest step in the process.

The worms are in liquid bacterial feed and are sealed in a special gas permeable plastic bag. The plastic bags are then housed in a special incubator. The worms reproduce in space and after growing to adults, in around 6.5 days, they will be frozen until returning to Earth.

“The Molecular Muscle Experiment aims to understand the causes of neuromuscular decline in space,” said Nate Szewczyk, Professor of Space Biology at the University of Nottingham.

“This research will help us establish the precise molecules that cause muscle problems during spaceflight and enable us to test the effectiveness of novel therapies for preventing the muscle decline associated with spaceflight.”

Dr Tim Etheridge, Senior Lecturer at the University of Exeter, said; “Worms are, perhaps surprisingly, a very good model for human muscle maintenance. At the molecular level, both structurally and metabolically they are highly similar to that of humans and from a space flight specific perspective – they provide a lot of practical advantages. They are very small, quick to grow, cheap and easy to maintain. It makes them good to work with”.

Understanding the causes of muscle loss in space and using this knowledge to find effective therapies could also help develop new treatments for muscular dystrophies, help understand ageing muscle loss and even help improve treatments for diabetes.

Dr Etheridge added: “Spaceflight represents the accelerated human model of the ageing condition and so, hopefully, by understanding the molecular changes it may provide the opportunity to understand human ageing on earth.”

Dr Amanda Collis, BBSRC Executive director, Science, said: "This is an exciting project and a great example of an international collaboration. The challenge to understand more about the worms during spaceflight could help provide new treatments for muscular dystrophies and help improve treatments for diabetes.”

Dr Gaffney, whose previous research into skeletal muscle has involved working with elite athletes, hopes the experiment with the worms will help find the exact cause of muscle loss while in space.

“This is the first UK-led experiment on the International Space Station,” he said. “I’ve loved space since I was very young, so being involved in science onboard the International Space Station is very exciting.”

The project is supported by The European Space Agency, UK Space Agency, BBSRC, MRC, and Arthritis Research UK and the launch is currently scheduled to take place between November 2018 and February 2019.

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