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Launch of first UK led experiment to the International Space Station

Ready for take-off from the Kennedy Space Centre. Copyright: John E Kennett/Twitter

Final preparations are under way for the first UK experiment to take place on the International Space Station.

Worms in space logo

The experiment will see thousands of tiny worms take off from the Kennedy Space Centre on a mission that will help scientists to better understand spaceflight-induced muscle loss.

The new understanding generated from the experiment could, in the future, be used to develop new treatments for muscular dystrophies. The research could also help boost our understanding of muscle loss during ageing and even help improve treatments for diabetes.

The Molecular Muscle Experiment is being led by a team of scientists from Exeter, Nottingham and Lancaster universities.

The University of Nottingham’s Professor of Space Biology, Nate Szewczyk, who is at Cape Canaveral for the launch, said: “We are hugely excited to be coordinating the first UK-led experiment on the International Space Station.

“The Molecular Muscle Experiment is the first experiment to try to establish the precise molecular causes of neuromuscular decline in space. We will be using a combination of gene manipulations and drugs to pinpoint these causes.

“This work is part of a broader investment in space by both the UK government and the University of Nottingham and could lead to real-life improvements to human health, both in space and on Earth.”

The Dragon spacecraft. Copyright: ESA/NASA
The Dragon spacecraft. Copyright: ESA/NASA

Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of BBSRC is also enthusiastic about the mission, “We are all very excited to be supporting the innovative research that forms the first UK experiment to take place on the International Space Station. Sending worms into space sounds wonderfully futuristic but this is real research that could help provide new solutions to health problems being faced here on earth. We will all be watching the launch with excitement and wish the team every success with the experiment.”

The microscopic worms being used in the experiment, known as C. elegans, are affected by biological changes in space, including alterations to their muscles and the ability to use energy and are used as a model system to help understand how space affects human physiology, sharing many similar features.

The worms are carried in a liquid bacterial feed and are sealed in a special gas permeable plastic bag. The plastic bags are then housed in a special incubator. The worms reproduce in space and after growing to adults, in around 6.5 days, they will be frozen until returning to Earth for further study.

Dr Chris Gaffney from Lancaster University is part of the team working on the project, “I’m very excited to be part of the first UK led experiment on board the International Space Station. This study promises to reveal more about the mechanisms of muscle loss in space. This research is important to understand muscle loss in spaceflight but also how we might prevent negative changes in muscle function with diabetes, muscular dystrophy, and ageing.”

The project is supported by the European Space Agency, UK Space Agency, UK Research and Innovation and Arthritis Research UK.

The launch has been delayed 24 hours and is currently scheduled to take place on Wednesday 5 December 18:16 GMT from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Both launches will be streamed live at: NASA: NASA Live.

For more information visit: Worms in Space: The Molecular Muscle Experiment.



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £498 million in world-class bioscience in 2017-18. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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Tags: BBSRC press release human health Lancaster University University of Essex University of Nottingham health