Tiny roundworms, might be the answer to keeping astronauts healthy in space. Two Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) investigations on the International Space Station, help researchers seek clues to physiological problems found in astronauts by studying Caenorhabditis elegans – a millimeter long roundworm that is widely used as a model for larger organisms. The results of the investigation could lead to new treatments for bone and muscle loss in humans living in space. Findings may also be beneficial to people on Earth suffering from muscle and bone diseases. Gravity helps in blood circulation and keeping the muscles and bones healthy. However, astronauts on long journeys in space as well as people who have been on prolonged bed rest on Earth face similar problems. The inactivity, even removing simple daily movement, can have a negative effect on the bones and muscles of the infirm or elderly. Patients on prolonged bed rest experience muscle atrophy, bone density loss and changes in metabolism, similar to the effects of long-duration spaceflight.
One investigation, scheduled for launch to the station on the SpaceX’s sixth space station resupply mission in 2015, is called Alterations of C. elegans muscle fibers by microgravity (Nematode Muscle). It will look into the muscle fibers and cytoskeleton of the roundworm to clarify how those physiological systems alter in response to microgravity. Space station crew members will grow these worms in microgravity, as well as another batch in one-g using a centrifuge. A different JAXA investigation currently on station is taking a much closer look at C. elegans by examining their DNA. It requires astronauts on the orbiting laboratory to grow four generations of the worm, with adults and larvae from each generation preserved at different points during their lifespan.
Worms grown in each investigation will be compared to similar batches grown in a laboratory in Japan. Understanding the molecular changes that take place in microgravity could help researchers develop treatments or therapies to counteract the physical changes associated with ageing and extended bed rest, such as muscle atrophy or osteoporosis, and could help develop treatments or exercises for astronauts on long voyages. This simple, tiny roundworm could lead to a cure for symptoms affecting millions of the ageing and infirm populations of Earth, and the astronauts orbiting it, potentially offering a solution to a major problem in an extremely small package.
This article is based on materials provided by: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/news/nematode_muscle/#.VMu3eGiUe_g
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