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Worms In Space Battle Bone and Muscle Loss

Jan 15, 2015 01:06 PM EST
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While it took some time and the sacrifice of a great many animals, humanity has become much better acquainted with the dangers of space and how to better keep explorers safe. However, there are still risks to long-term living in space that cannot be avoided, and it may be that roundworms will come to our astronauts' rescue.
(Photo : NASA)

While it took some time and the sacrifice of a great many animals, humanity has become much better acquainted with the dangers of space and how to better keep explorers safe. However, there are still risks to long-term living in space that cannot be avoided, and it may be that roundworms will come to our astronauts' rescue.

While the state-of-the-art chambers of the International Space Station (ISS) are built to keep astronauts breathing, warm, and safe from harmful waves of radiation, they cannot stop the effects of microgravity. Muscle and bone normally build and stay strong on Earth by resisting gravity's pull, and in its absence, they can waste away.

"Spaceflight-induced health changes, such as decreases in muscle and bone mass, are a major challenge facing our astronauts," Julie Robinson, NASA's Chief Scientist for the ISS Program Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said in a statement. "We investigate solutions on the station not only to keep astronauts healthy as the agency considers longer space exploration missions, but also to help those on Earth who have limited activity as a result of aging or illness."

NASA's latest projects on the ISS include investigating ways to understand and treat this wasting, including the station's first ever X-ray machine as part of a joint project between NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). The machine won't be peeking at the bone structure of astronauts just yet, but it will allow them to measure the bone density of small model organisms (like lab rats) in real time.

Interestingly, it may be the muscle fibers and cytoskeleton of roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans), not rats, that may provide our experts their first clues about fighting atrophy and wasting.

In a study outlined by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), ISS crew members will grow these worms in microgravity, as well as another batch in one-g (the same gravitational force acting on a stationary object on Earth) using a centrifuge. This will simulate the force of gravity while the C. elegans remain physically in orbit, allowing a direct comparison of the effects of different gravity levels on organisms in space. These worms will also be compared to one grown in a lab back on Earth.

"Our studies will help clarify how and why these changes to health take place in microgravity and determine if the adaptations to space are transmitted from one cell generation to another without changing the basic DNA of an organism," explained Atsushi Higashitani, principal investigator for the JAXA investigation. "Then, we can investigate if those effects could be treated with different medicines or therapies."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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