Why NASA sent more than 100,000 bugs into space

Earth and the rising sun as seen from inside the International Space Station.

NASA recently used the Cygnus spacecraft to send 8,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), along with 120,000 nematodes.

Although they live in a muddy environment, they are not the same as annelids like earthworms, one of the most common animal models used by scientists to study complex organisms, including humans.

Nathaniel Szewczyk of Ohio University, a member of this experimental team, said that if researchers can understand the impact of the microgravity environment in space on these organisms, there is hope to understand the impact of the space environment on the human body.

Over the past 60 years, humans have begun to move around in space more frequently. Scientists have found that lighter muscles and bones seem to be a common occurrence after living in a space environment for a period of Time. Even if the astronauts follow the professional trainer to guide the exercise, with a balanced diet recommended by a nutritionist, still can not avoid the body to appear this change. This has become one of the biggest concerns of scientists about human expansion of space activities.

This experiment sounds incredible, to study the impact of the space environment on human muscles, using this whole body transparent, only about 1 mm each nematode as a model is reasonable?

It’s quite shocking that these worms have muscles, too,” Sedgwick said. But it’s true, these worms, like humans, need muscle movement to move from point A to point B. Many of the mechanisms inside the muscle cells of both are actually the same.”

A prime example of what Sedgwick is referring to is the protein myosin, which is one of the focuses of this experiment. Myosin is one of the key proteins needed for muscle contraction and is found in both humans and hidrophilic cryptorchid nematodes.

The researchers designed a device specifically for these worms to test their strength. The device looks like an old-fashioned cassette tape recorder, but inside it is set up as an obstacle path for the worms to crawl along.

The box is filled with a large number of bendable pillars as obstacles, and as the bugs squeeze through the pillars and crawl between them, a miniature camera is used to measure the degree to which each pillar is bent, which is used to calculate the amount of force the bugs’ muscles apply to the pillars.

The bugs will be tested for the first time when they first arrive at the space station, and then measured again after 2 to 4 weeks of living in space. Finally, the worms will be returned to the ground environment, where researchers will test the worms for any changes in genetic phenotype and muscle strength.

While many people are skeptical of using worm experiments for human muscle research, Sedzczyk said the two are, at the molecular level, highly similar. “But I know that a lot of people think it sounds too crazy.”