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Worms in Space: The Molecular Muscle Experiment

Worms in space logo

The microscopic worms have completed their journey into space and have now been frozen. Find our more in our special feature.

The worm used in the flight samples and ground samples have both successfully run in the incubator for the proper period of time and both sets are now frozen.

There are two sets of worms. Those used in the space flight and those being used for comparison, here on earth (ground samples).

When are the worms returning?

The ground samples have been shipped from the Kennedy Space Station to the University of Nottingham.

The flight samples should arrive in Los Angles port around 11 January and, back at the Centre a few days later.

What will be done with them on their return?

Upon return the worms are likely to be kept frozen for a month or so. It is expected that initial work will involve imaging analysis of some of the samples and looking at differential gene expression. Further analysis will then, take place here over a period of months.

This is part of a serious experiment to try and understand why astronauts lose some of their muscle in space.

During spaceflight an astronaut’s body changes. Losing muscle can affect their ability to work on a long space mission. Astronauts can lose up to 40% of their muscle after 6 months in space.

The very small worms, which can only be clearly seen under a microscope are C. elegans. It seems incredible but in many ways the tiny worms are similar to humans and share some of the essential biological characteristics. The worms help show the effect of changes in space, including alterations to muscle and the ability to use energy.

The Worms in Space team waiting for the launch at the Kennedy Space Centre, USA © University of Exeter

Copyright: Dr Eves-van den Akker

Their journey to the International Space Station began from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, USA. The International Space Station is in orbit around earth between 205 and 270 miles away. The worms reproduced in space and after growing to adults, in around 6.5 days, were frozen.

UK scientists from Exeter and Nottingham universities are working together on the experiment, which launched on 5 December 2018.

Understanding the causes of muscle loss in space may help astronauts in the future and address health problems on earth. Muscle loss caused by ageing might be better understood and the research could improve treatments for conditions such as diabetes.

The project is a real team effort and is supported by The European Space Agency, UK Space Agency, BBSRC, MRC, and Arthritis Research UK.

For further information, see: Worms in Space: Molecular Muscle Experiment.

Video: Find out more about the project

Video: Discover why worms are used

Video: Worms in Space - BEIS animation

Worms in Space - Did you know?

  • Understanding spaceflight muscle changes in worms may help us improve human treatment for muscular dystrophies and diabetes
  • The worms will travel in special bags full of food that allow gases to pass through. The bags will be carried in an incubator
  • Spaceflight is an extreme environment and changes to the body such as the loss of muscle and bone mass, can be the equivalent of ageing over 40 years in around a year-long mission
  • The loss of bone mass in space is only partially recovered within a year of returning to Earth
  • Astronauts exercise daily to prevent harmful changes in the cardiovascular system and to prevent loss of muscle and bone mass
  • There are over one million different types of worms worldwide. But scientist use one particular type of worm for research. The C. elegans.
The small but mighty worm has helped improve medicine for humans.
A genome is a set of intructions that can be used to build a human or a worm.
Did you know worms are the only animals to live on all seven continents.

The Molecular Muscle Experiment is supported by

UK Space agency logo
Medical Research Council logo
European Space Agency logo
BBSRC logo
Arthritis Research UK logo