A scientist from the University of Exeter is planning to send thousands of tiny worms to the International Space Station, or ISS. With the help of the worms, Dr. Timothy Etheridge wants to understand the mechanism behind human buildup of and damage to muscles.
The announcement of the planned mission -- likely to take place between 2017 and 2020 -- was outlined in the "National Strategy: Space Environments and Human Spaceflight," published by the U.K. Space Agency. Etheridge of the Sports and Health Sciences department at the university conducts research to study how muscle declines in space and the methods that potentially can prevent the loss.
Reduced muscle mass and muscle weakness are common problems encountered in spaceflight. However, the researcher believes conducting further research by sending worms into space can also help find potential solutions to problems of people suffering from diabetes and muscular dystrophy, and for the elderly.
Etheridge is planning to send Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. Elegans, a nematode worm species, to the space station. The researcher specifically selected this worm specifically because it demonstrates muscle loss under a variety of circumstances, just like humans.
"Perhaps more worryingly, because muscle carries out several metabolic processes such as burning glucose and fat for energy, this level of muscle wasting could help lead to [solutions for] metabolic ailments such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity,” said Etheridge, in a statement.
“These experiments will provide the first definitive demonstration of the mechanisms underlying muscle loss in space, and help to develop targeted therapies to lessen the problem in the future."
Apart from Etheridge's experiment, two other life science experiments by U.K. research teams have been selected for further planning. All three experiments will be flown to the ISS and will be the result of a collaboration among the European Space Agency, NASA and Canadian and Japanese space agencies.