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The UK Is Sending 360,000 Worms to Space for a Very Human Reason

The Caenorhabditis elegans is a very small, transparent roundworm that, when left to its own devices, lives in rotting vegetation. At only one millimeter long, it’s time on Earth is brief — just two to three weeks to be born, reproduce, and die. Despite these constraints, the C. elegans could be the key to understanding human aging. All it has to do to is be sent into space.

On Tuesday, the United Kingdom Space Agency announced that it is planning to do exactly that. University of Nottingham space biology professor and team member Nate Szewczyk Ph.D., tells Inverse that sometime between November 2018 and February 2019 “roughly 360,000 worms are going up” to the International Space Station. Analyzing how spaceflight changes the C. elegans is anticipated to reveal insight into numerous issues: aging muscle loss, muscular dystrophies, and the negative health changes that afflict astronaut’s bodies while they travel to space.

“Spaceflight represents the accelerated human model of the aging condition and so, hopefully, by understanding the molecular changes it [this experiment] may provide the opportunity to understand human aging on Earth,” University of Exeter senior lecturer and team member Tim Etheridge, Ph.D., says.

The project's actual logo.

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The project is officially titled the “Molecular Muscle Experiment” and is supported by the United Kingdom Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the Medical Research Council. This experiment will be the first to be led by the United Kingdom on the International Space Station, which it joined in 2012.

“The Molecular Muscle Experiment aims to understand the causes of neuromuscular decline in space,” Szewczyk explained in a statement Tuesday. “This research will help us establish the precise molecules that cause muscle problems during spaceflight and enable us to test the effectiveness of novel therapies for preventing the muscle decline associated with spaceflight.”

Previous studies have demonstrated that astronauts can lose up to 40 percent of their muscle after six months in space. Existing in microgravity can ignite muscle atrophy: Floating means muscles aren’t used as often, which causes muscle mass strength to rapidly decease. A study published in the journal Spine in 2016 demonstrated that when six NASA crew members returned from six months in space, their spines grew stiff and they lost muscle in their necks.

The C. elegans. 

Scientists believe these worms can reveal insights into issues of human muscle because, despite their primitivism and diet of bacteria, they’re well established as a good model for the human body. Sometime 500 to 600 million years ago lived the common ancestor that we and these little soil worms share, and because of that familial connection, we share nearly 80 percent of the same genes. C. elegans are highly similar to humans at the metabolic level, and their muscles act much like our own.

These worms are also ideal specimens to send to space because they are small, quick to grow, cheap, and easy to keep alive. Right now scientists are currently growing the worms, putting them in plastic bags, placing those bags in an experimental container, and throwing those into an incubator, ready to go to space. They’ll live their lives far away from dirt and garbage — and their muscles will likely reflect the change.

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