Hundreds of tiny worms are set to journey to the International Space Station (ISS) to help scientists understand more about how astronauts experience muscle loss in space.
The nematode roundworm species known as Caenorhabditis elegans will be flown to the ISS later this year as part of a project involving UK scientists to help develop new treatments for muscular dystrophies.
The hope is that the research could also help understand age-related muscle loss and improve treatments for diabetes.
UK Science Minister Sam Gyimah 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.”
Astronauts can lose up to 40% of their muscle when they spend six months or longer in space.
Over the years, the extreme spaceflight environment of the ISS has given scientists the opportunity to study the physiological changes in astronauts to better understand the ageing process in the human body.
The worms, which are about 1mm in size, are known to share many of the biological characteristics as humans.
They are also affected by the biological changes caused by living in space – which includes changes to muscle mass and the ability to use energy.
The team of scientists – from Exeter, Nottingham and Lancaster Universities – involved in the project hope to study the worms to discover more about the mechanism behind muscle loss.
Nate Szewczyk, professor of Space Biology at the University of Nottingham, said: “The Molecular Muscle Experiment aims to understand the causes of neuromuscular decline in space.
“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.”