July 7, 2012
Worms In Space Live Longer Than Their Earthly Counterparts
Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Scientists have reported in the journal Scientific Reports that spaceflight could help a microscopic worm live longer.
The international group of scientists were studying the loss of bone and muscle mass experienced by astronauts when they found that spaceflight suppressed accumulation of toxic proteins that normally accumulate within aging muscle.
“We identified seven genes, which were down-regulated in space and whose inactivation extended lifespan under laboratory conditions," said Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk, an expert in muscle metabolism at the University of Nottingham. “We are not entirely certain, but it would appear that these genes are involved in how the worm senses the environment and signals changes in metabolism in order to adapt to the environment."
He said, for example, that one of the genes identified by the scientists encodes insulin - and in worms, flies and mice, insulin is also associated with modulation of lifespan.
“Well, most of us know that muscle tends to shrink in space," Szewczyk said. "These latest results suggest that this is almost certainly an adaptive response rather than a pathological one. Counter-intuitively, muscle in space may age better than on Earth. It may also be that spaceflight slows the process of aging.”
He transported special liquid food for worms to and from the Russian launch site, and ran a series of "health" checks to ensure the small worms were fit for flying. When they returned from space, he helped with the analysis of the data.
Szewczyk studies the signals that control muscle protein degradation in the human body, and Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) provide a perfect substitute for studying long-term changes in human physiology because they suffer from muscle atrophy.
The worms have taken part in five spaceflights to the International Space Station (ISS) with the goal of learning more about the effect of microgravity on the physiology of the human body.
C. elegan made the news in 2003 when it was found that the worms actually survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The worms were able to survive re-entry, and were recovered weeks after the disaster in enclosed aluminum canisters.
The work on C. elegans has established that worms can live and reproduce for at least six months in space. Studies on the tiny astronauts have helped scientists better understand how muscle works on Earth.