Worms in space hold key to astronauts' muscle loss

11 Sep 2018 10:15:00.000

Thousands of worms will be launched into space later this year to help scientists find out why astronauts experience significant muscle loss in zero-gravity during spaceflight.

The Worms in Space project is the first UK experiment to take place on the International Space Station and involves teams of scientists from the Universities of Nottingham, Exeter and Lancaster.

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 6 months in space. These changes are regarded as an excellent model for the aging process in the body, and scientists are able to use the knowledge gained from studying changes in astronauts to better understand the aging human body. 

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Earlier research has revealed that the microscopic worms C.Elegans and humans experience similar molecular changes in space that affect muscle and metabolism. This new research will try to identify the precise molecules that cause these problems and also test out new therapies to prevent muscle loss in zero-gravity.

The space mission could lead to new treatments for muscular dystrophies and diabetes. It could also help boost our understanding of age-related muscle loss and how we could prevent this in the future.

The University of Nottingham’s Professor of Space Biology, Nate Szewczyk, said: “We are hugely excited to be spearheading this unique world-first experiment on the International Space Station this winter. The Molecular Muscle Experiment is the first to try to establish the precise molecular causes of neuromuscular decline in space. Our colleagues on the ISS will be helping us to use combinations of gene manipulations and drugs to pinpoint these causes. This work could lead to real life improvements to human health, both in space and on earth.” 

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”. 

Preparations to send worms into space have been taking place at Nottingham. 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. 

Dr Beth Phillips, one of the co-investigators on this project, said: “In addition to our scientific work this experiment is important as it allows us to engage with school-aged students to encourage them to consider careers in science and technology. To promote this agenda, we have been attending science fairs and museums with activities relating to this experiment and have also set up a website to engage with students https://www.mme-spaceworms.com“.

UK scientists are able to carry out this research thanks to the UK Space Agency’s subscriptions to the European Space Agency’s exploration programme, which contributes to the costs of the International Space Station, which the UK joined in 2012.

Libby Jackson, Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency said: “This is the first of many exciting experiments heading to the International Space Station from the UK, thanks to our contributions to ESA.  The Molecular Muscle Experiment will provide knowledge that will benefit our understanding of muscle aging and help to improve life on Earth."

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.

Videos on the project are available here:

Worms in space: The Molecular Muscle Experiment (BBSRC)


Worms in Space - Why Worms? (UK Space Agency)


For more information visit: bbsrc.ukri.org/wormsinspace


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Story credits

More information is available from Professor Nate Szewczyk via email

Emma Rayner - Media Relations Manager

Email: emma.rayner@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 74 84413  Location: University Park

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