Spacefaring Worms Show How Gravity Affects Genes – Universe Today


In this decade and the next, humanity is poised to go to space like never before. National space agencies will be sending astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era, private launch services will spearhead the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), missions to the outer Solar System will search for evidence of extraterrestrial life, and crewed missions to Mars are on the horizon.

In preparation for this, a considerable amount of research is being done aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to determine how extended periods of time in space can affect living beings on the genetic level. In a recent experiment, a team of researchers from the University of Exeter conducted an analysis of worms on the ISS and noted “subtle changes” in their genetic makeup.

The analysis was part of the Molecular Muscle Experiment (MME), which was conducted in partnership with NASA GeneLab and partial funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council. The research team’s findings were shared in a study that appeared in the Nov. 25th issue of the journal iScience.

Wild-type C. elegans hermaphrodite stained with the fluorescent to highlight the nuclei of all cells. Credit: Quadell/Wikipedia Commons

For this experiment, Caenorhabditis elegans (a species of nematode worms) were placed in perforated bags (allowing oxygen to pass through) and flown to the ISS. Once there, they entered an incubation period of about 6.5 days, which allowed them to have offspring that could grow to adult age. These were then exposed alternately to the microgravity conditions of the station and to high gravity conditions in centrifuges.

The worms were then frozen for transport back to Earth, where they were examined for any genetic changes. As Craig Willis, a researcher with the College of Life and Environmental Science at the University of Exeter (and the lead author on the paper), explained in a University of Exeter press release:

“A crucial step towards overcoming any physiological condition is first understanding its underlying molecular mechanism. We have identified genes with roles in neuronal function and cellular metabolism that are affected by gravitational changes.

“These worms display molecular signatures and physiological features that closely mirror those observed in humans, so our findings should provide foundations for a better understanding of spaceflight-induced health decline in mammals and, eventually, humans.

Identical twin astronauts, Scott and Mark Kelly, are subjects of NASA’s Twins Study. Scott (right) spent a year in space while Mark (left) stayed on Earth as a control subject. Researchers looked at the effects of space travel on the human body. Credit: NASA

As Dr. Timothy Etheridge, a researcher from the University of Exeter and a co-author on the paper, explained:

“We looked at levels of every gene in the worms’ genome and identified a clear pattern of genetic change….

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