This week, hundreds of tiny worms are being launched to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of a British Space Agency-funded research project to investigate human muscle loss and how to prevent it.
The impact of gravity and other differences in conditions on astronauts performing months-long space missions is still relatively poorly understood.
One of the most disturbing effects is muscle changes that occur as a result of human bodies — having 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 towards these biological changes, using hardware designed by Kayser Space of Oxford.
The worms are housed in culture bags in 24 matchbox-sized experiment containers, each containing three culture bags.
Once on board the ISS, these containers are placed in the incubator in the Columbus module of the station. The experiment lasts five to six days.
The research builds on a 2018 experiment and tests 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 aging on muscle. This is valuable for developing more effective therapies and treatments for muscular dystrophy on Earth. Science Minister Amanda Solloway commented:
“Experiment in space is pushing the boundaries of knowledge and bringing real benefits to the rest of us back on Earth. It’s amazing to think that sending worms into space could improve our health and help live longer and I am delighted that British 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 changes in muscle and the ability to use energy.Professor Tim Etheridge, University of Exeter, said:
“The experiment will give us even more new information about the molecules that cause muscle contraction in space and whether it can help target them with new drugs and interventions.
This information can then lay the foundation for safely sending humans into deep space on long-term missions.” 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 could be harmful to astronauts.
We are very excited that this latest mission will allow us to build on the work we have already done to further investigate not only what causes muscle loss in spaceflight, but also how we can prevent it.
This work will have implications not only for astronauts, but also for many situations on Earth .” The experiment will be launched to the ISS on the SpX-22, a Commercial Resupply Service mission commissioned by NASA and flown by SpaceX using a Cargo Dragon 2 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.