Going months without moving to the point of experiencing muscle wastage is a real mood under lockdown – but for astronauts, it’s a serious concern in the workplace. Without the pressure of gravity, human muscles need not exert themselves so much to get around, but how do you stop yourself from returning to Earth like a big bag of jelly? A new study hopes to gather information on exactly this by launching worms into space and getting them to run mazes. The wriggly astronauts are in fact already on the International Space Station (ISS), where they’ll be put to the test to better understand what happens to muscle strength in space.
The worms left terra firma in February of this year, according to a report from Inverse, launched by NASA. Tens of thousands of Earthworm Jim wannabes were sent to the extraterrestrial lab. A Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply spacecraft left Earth with 3,629 kilograms (8,000 pounds) of scientific kit and some daily essentials for astronauts, like food and 120,000 Caenorhabditis elegans worms
C. elegans are a household name among scientists, having played a starring role in countless studies. These nifty nematodes sit outside of the annelids, which contain typical worms, and instead are considered an analog species that can be used to glean insights into much more complex animals. The hope is that their performance during physical tasks in space can provide insights as to what’s happening to the bodies of astronauts who (from one crew to the next) have inhabited the ISS for two decades.
"If the molecules are effectively the same between worms and rodents and people, and the effects are basically the same, then things should translate fairly quickly," said Nathaniel Szewczyk, an investigator on the study hailing from Ohio University, to Inverse.
It won’t be an easy ride for the resident worms, who will be put to work running mazes as part of the experiment inside a device called NemaFlex. Inside this, the worms will use their tiny muscles to wiggle past microscopic obstacles, and the amount these obstacles bend, captured by a camera, will indicate the power behind the worm’s flex. With experiments taking place throughout their stay on the ISS and when they return to Earth, it’s hoped the C. elegans workforce will start to show what effects living 254 miles above Earth's surface has on the body.
The data constitutes hotly sought-after information for both private and government-funded space agencies, some of whom are setting their sights farther afield in light of the recent successful mission to Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover. Perseverance is trundling across the Red Planet’s surface as we speak, equipped with a wealth of tools to carry out its important scientific tasks, from scooping up soil samples to searching for signs of microbial life. Who knows, perhaps the next rover set for Mars will have a few stowaways on board, taking C. elegans where no worm has gone before.