July 12, 2012

Worms Thrive Better Than Humans In Weightless Space

John Neumann for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

When European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut André Kuipers first went to space in 2004 to the International Space Station (ISS), he took with him some microscopic Caenorhabditis elegans worms.  A team of scientists from the U.S., Japan, France and Canada were interested in seeing how C. elegans reacted to living in weightlessness.

You may not need to stay awake at night worrying about space worms invading the planet but this species at least seemed to come back better for the trip.

Researchers found the worms came back with fewer toxic proteins in their muscles than if they had stayed on Earth, according to results published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports recently. Further investigation revealed that seven genes were less active in space.

Living on the ISS prevented certain genes from functioning normally and surprisingly, the worms seemed to function better without them.

Turning off these genes in a laboratory, researchers found that worms raised without the seven genes also lived longer and healthier. Nathaniel Szewczyk, a scientist from the project, explains: “Muscle tends to shrink in space. The results from this study suggest that muscles are adapting rather than reacting involuntarily to space conditions."

“Counterintuitively, muscles in space may age better than on Earth. It may also be that spaceflight slows the process of ageing.”

Humans share around 55 percent of genes with C. elegans so the next step is to probe human muscle response to spaceflight.

After André finished his second mission to the ISS earlier this month, the astronaut himself was investigated as well.

Before the start of André´s mission, a small piece of muscle was removed from his leg and kept for analysis. After six months in space, scientists are eager to see how his muscles have reacted to spaceflight.

The astronaut is being allowed a few weeks to recuperate from his tiring space travel before scientists put his muscles under the microscope.