Worms in space: The Molecular Muscle Experiment

Worms in space: The Molecular Muscle Experiment


Preparing to send worms into space sounds
an unusual challenge, but that’s just what’s happening. A team of scientists from Exeter and Nottingham
universities are working together to send microscopic worms into space in a bid to discover
more about muscle loss during space flight. The experiment will see worms flown to the
International Space Station to try and understand what causes astronauts to suffer from spaceflight-induced muscle loss. The very small worms, known as C. elegans,
share many of the essential biological characteristics as humans. The worms show the effect of biological
changes in space, including alterations to muscle and the ability to use energy. So, what we are doing is taking larval stage
worms and putting them into a liquid bacterial feed and loading those worms into a gas permeable
plastic bag. Now, the gas permeable bit is really important because it allows oxygen
and carbon dioxide exchange, so the worms can essentially breathe and so they don’t
starve and die through lack of oxygen. We are then sealing those bags closed to keep
all the liquid nice and tightly in, and then putting those bags into a container, ready
for flight. Spaceflight is an extreme environment that
causes many negative health changes to the body and astronauts can lose up to 40% of
their muscle after six months in space. This muscle loss could reduce in-flight performance
and threaten astronaut health on longer missions. So understanding the causes of muscle loss
in space and using this knowledge to find effective therapies, is therefore important
to the future of space exploration. 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; such as being very small, quick to grow, cheap,
easy to maintain, relatively speaking, and so they provide a lot of practical advantages
that are within the constraints of space flight work, make them good to work with. We’ve been culturing worms in a liquid culture,
in OP-50 – which is their feed. We’ve been growing these worms and placing them into
plastic bags. Once we’ve placed them in plastic bags then we seal the plastic bags
up and place them into the experimental container, which is then placed in the incubator – ready
to go into space. That journey to the International Space Station
will begin at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre. The worms reproduce in space and after growing
to adults, in around 6.5 days, they will be frozen until returning to Earth. Similarities between health problems seen
in space and human health concerns on Earth and understanding how, and why these changes
occur in worms, could help us understand why these same changes occur in astronauts. It could help in the development of new treatments
for muscular dystrophies, help understand ageing muscle loss and even help improve treatments
for diabetes. It all means this is an important project. We think so, the aim of the Molecular Muscle
Experiment is to provide the first precise understanding of what the molecular causes
of muscle loss in space are. I think it’s very important. It’s the
first UK led experiment on the International Space Station – so that’s important, we
really want to promote that, and increase uptake in stem subjects. And for the teams working together on this
project it’s an exciting time. Yes definitely, it’s an exciting project
to be working on and something you only get to work on once in a lifetime. Very, very exciting. I’ve loved space since
I was very young, and so to be involved in something that we are sending to the space
station is incredibly exciting. I always enjoy my time in the lab, so getting
my hands dirty, doing all the pipetting, sealing the bags – yes, it’s nice to have ‘hands
on’ involvement in the work, it’s great. Spaceflight represent an accelerated model
of the human ageing condition and so, hopefully, by understanding the molecular causes and
countermeasures against those changes – in spaceflight, it may provide the opportunity
to understand human ageing on earth. The project is supported by The European Space
Agency, UK Space Agency, BBSRC, MRC, and Arthritis Research UK. The launch is currently scheduled to take
place between November 2018 and February 2019.

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