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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Worms innnnnn Spacccccceeeee

I recall reading an old Bugs Bunny comic when I was kid - one from the 1970s, where aliens came to Earth.

The alien said that since the people on Mars were Martians, the people on Venus were Venusians, the people from Earth must be Earthworms.

It makes sense… we gave our planet a fancy word for dirt, where worms live… despite the fact that this great blue marble has far more water on it than dirt.

Okay… I'm writing this at lunch time on Friday… so after work I'm going to go home and search for that comic book and that actual joke contained within it…

Anyhow… worms…

In an effort to study the effects of microgravity (the so-called weak gravity within something like a spacecraft) on the human body, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is performing two tests (experiments, really) while observing Caenorhabditis Elegans - aka a tiny roundworm. (See image above, courtesy of NASA.)

The plan is to try and figure what causes bone and muscle loss in humans after prolonged space travel - even after a few days up there.

For example, after spending a month on the ISS (International Space Station), astronauts will suffer anywhere from one to two percent loss of bone mass… and it continues for each additional month spent in space. After 50 months, you'd just be a big space suit of goo. Kidding. I think.

It's why astronauts have to perform daily exercises while in space… it's not just because they are health freaks - though I bet they are - but because it is needed to try and counter the effects of the bone mass loss.

Here's the thing… even with the exercise, that one to two percent bone mass loss is STILL what the astronauts suffer.

Apparently research is being carried out at many scientific facilities, such as King's College London who have developed skinsuits to simulate Earth gravity… it beats me how they are going to make the worms put them on considering the lack of hands, but it sounds promising. :)

The Caenorhabditis Elegans colorless and translucent worm is less than 1-mm long, and generally lives to a ripe old age of up to three weeks (in lab conditions) - both factors in why it was chosen, as they don't take up a lot of space and astronauts can grow multiple worm generations while on a mission. Plus, while there are specific male and females, they are hermaphrodites - possessing both male and female sexual organs. Any port in a storm, I guess.

Anatomical drawing of a male Caenorhabditis elegans nematode with emphasis on the reproductive system. Betcha didn't think worms were all that complex looking. Might make you think twice the next time you want to use one for bait... those these guys are pretty damn small...
As well, Caenorhabditis Elegans was the first multi-cellular organism to have its whole genome sequenced, and as of 2012, the only organism to have its connectome (neuronal "wiring diagram") completed.

Basically, scientists feel that this worm from Earth (though not an earth worm) can simulate human bone and muscle mass - just on a smaller scale.

Is it just me, but are you surprised to think that worms have bones… how come we've never seen worm skeletons in the ground - outside of a cartoon, that is.

The scientists at JAXA want to see if cellular degeneration occurs on succeeding generations of worms in an effort to see how and why such things occur and also to test if such 'adaptions' to space travel are transmitted over the generations without altering the basic DNA of an organism.

Why? Well, if we are to ever have families in space, they want to see if any kids born in space come out with reduced bone and/or muscle density, or if the new organism adapts successfully to its environment.

As well, they want to see if it's possible to develop a 'cure' for such muscle and bone mass loss  through medicine or alternative physical therapies.

I would like to see just how much bone or muscle loss can occur over a lengthy period of time... and does the body adapt to the environment. I understand that for these short trips astronauts take up into space, the bone and muscle loss is concerning - especially since it will affect them back on Earth... but does it have a negative affect on the human body (or Earth worms) after prolonged exposure up in space... or will the bones and muscles find that happy medium ground... I doubt we've  tested that...   
ISS (International Space Station) on May 23, 2010.
The second experiment involves a resupply mission to the ISS by a SpaceXDragon team that will look at degradation of muscle loss and how it affects the cytoskeleton of the worm.
SpaceXDragon - May 2012 - used to deliver people and supplies to the ISS. Privately-owned by a California company, it is a partially reusable, two-stage launch-to-orbit spacecraft.
In this experiment, a group of worms will be grown in a low-Earth orbit microgravity environ, with a second group grown in a 1G centrifuge to simulate an Earth gravity aboard the ISS space station…

In both cases, the worms will be returned to Earth and compared with a non-traveling set of worms grown in a lab in Japan.

While you might wonder at why so much money is being poured into such research for possible decades away long-term space travel, scientists point out that it also has practical applications here on Earth: like what happens to people who are forced into prolonged bed rest (muscle and bone loss occurs - probably due to blood settling) and and typical aging. Grandma used to be taller, right?

I would guess that up in space, with a lesser gravity, blood flow does not travel as well in the human body, and so does not have the same affect it would for the Earth-bound like you and I. The same would hold true for those forced to endure long periods of bed rest… improper blood flow…

Because bones are a living tissue, with the human body constantly breaking down and replacing it with new bone, I would imagine the growth is being stymied somehow...

Consider, also, that the human body weighs less in a micogravity environment... this means less stress is placed on the bones and body... so... the body begins to adapt to its lighter space environment...

Which... is you think about it, is actually pretty damn wonderful. Our bodies change to work best in a new environment.

But when does the density loss stop, this "disuse osteoporosis"? Cosmonauts on the USSR/Russian space station Mir (in operation between 1986-2001) spent long missions there, with Valeri Polyakov having the space record still, spending 437 days and 18 hours.

Polyakov's mission was to test the effects of microgravity on a human body. Although I can't find exact data regarding bone and muscle density loss (damn commies), we do know that mentally - while a bit down and feeling overworked, he was fine... so space shouldn't screw up your brain.   

Except that other tests have shown scientists that one year in space will compromise the immune system - not to mention the increased exposure to cosmic radiation - which may not turn you into the Fantastic Four, but it will hurt you.

On Earth, the European Space Agency and the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems performed a 520-day simulated space mission that showed that crew members showed signs of depression and boredom... and if you've watched enough modern space movies, you know that if left untreated, someone's going to get angry... and then violent.

The ISS insists its crew members perform two hours of exercise every day to combat excessive bone and muscle loss: one hour of cardiovascular training, and one hour of weightlifting. (Hunh... I was doing astronaut training plus when I was a workoutaholic.) 

Despite these exercises, most astronauts after spending six months in orbit are unable to walk after returning to Earth.

As the worm turns, so too does the world around us, and perhaps one day the quality of life in space and on Earth can be improved upon.

And it starts with Japan and its tests involving those magnificent Earth creatures - the worm.

If you are having tequila this weekend - don't eat the worm...

Andrew Joseph

PS: If you are wondering about the headline, well... perhaps you have heard of the Muppet Show and their multiple skits (32 episodes in four seasons) of Pigs In Space... said in the same fashion I presented at the top.  See below for picture of the crew of the Swine Trek.

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