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Worms hitch a ride aboard the ISS

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Apr 30, 2015, 16:11 UTC

Sen—You could be forgiven for thinking that worms have little in common with us humans, yet astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti has been conducting science aboard the International Space Station involving tiny nematode worms (roundworms) to help better understand the effects of space on the human body.

In humans, periods of exposure to the microgravity of space result in loss of strength, resistance and performance of muscle and connective tissues, called muscle atrophy. However, the basic biological mechanisms that lead to loss of muscle mass are not fully understood.

Cristoferetti explained on Twitter: "See, we astronauts can counteract these negative effects by working out every day, because we are healthy. But what about sick people who are bed-ridden?"

Previous research on the ISS established that in the microgravity environment of space a species of nematode worm called C. elegans have a reduced protein concentration in muscles and their metabolism goes into an energy-saving mode. Cristoferetti is growing one nematode larva in weightlessness and another in a centrifuge to simulate Earth gravity to discover how the cells receive the signals that induce those changes.

The research being conducted by Cristoforetti is one of many experiments undertaken by the crew during their time aboard the station.

The orbiting laboratory has a permanent crew of six astronauts. Each expedition typically stays in space for between six months, though two astronauts—cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly—have started a year long mission.

Cristoferetti is Flight Engineer for Expedition 42 and 43 aboard the ISS, and will return to Earth in mid May.

Along with ESA astronaut Cristoforetti, the other crew aboard the ISS are NASA astronauts Commander Terry Virts and Scott Kelly, along with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov, Gennady Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko.

For details of every human who has been in space since the first spaceflight of Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961, including who is in space now and their previous missions, check out Sen’s human spaceflight app.


The final product: two fixation tubes ready for cold storage. Image credit: NASA/Samantha Cristoforetti