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Worms in Space: The Molecular Muscle Experiment

It sounds like a mad sci-fi adventure but scientists are preparing to fly worms into space!

Worms in space logo

It’s 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.

Sam Gyimah, Science Minister

Sam Gyimah, former Science Minister said: “It’s not every day that you hear of the potential health benefits of sending worms into space, but this crucial project which is also the first of its kind, could lead to better treatment for muscular conditions for people on Earth as well as improving the wellbeing of our astronauts."

The very small worms, which can only be clearly seen under a microscope are known as 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.

Their journey to the International Space Station will begin at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, USA. The International Space Station is in orbit around earth between 205 and 270 miles away. The worms will reproduce in space and after growing to adults, in around 6.5 days, they will be frozen until return to Earth.

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