Space Worms Experiment Reveals Gravity Affects Genes

This March 25, 2009 photo provided by NASA shows the International Space Station seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery during separation. (NASA via AP)

(CN) — Living for a period of time in a low-gravity environment can affect cells at their base genetic levels, according to new research made possible by worms on the International Space Station.

While the prospect of exploring and occupying the vast vacuum of space has widely enthralled scientists, engineers and casual space enthusiasts for generations, one question has been gnawing at experts for nearly as long: What exactly happens to a living body once it is subjected to the cold and weightless environment of outer space?

Organizations like NASA have poured countless hours of research into answering this question, with experts concluding that while safety measures can be put in place, being in space for prolonged periods of time can expose living things to potentially dangerous amounts of radiation, wreak havoc on skeletal muscles and can significantly stress the mind. 

The new research indicates that the effects of space on a living thing may also be experienced on a much deeper level.

According to a study by the University of Exeter and the NASA GeneLab, published Wednesday in iScience, researchers report that living in a low-gravity environment can result in subtle but fundamental changes to a creature’s cells. Researchers analyzed the genetic data of Caenorhabditis elegans worms that were brought on board the International Space Station and found that after spending some time in the weightless station, the worms experienced changes to around 1,000 genes. 

Researchers determined that certain genes were more susceptible to low-gravity’s influence than others. While certain genes saw only incremental change, the worms’ neurons saw more pronounced genetic alterations.

Experts say that these findings could help shed light on why living things respond so poorly to outer space. If low-gravity environments can influence living things on a cellular level, such an influence could play a huge role in how agencies plan for future space endeavors. 

This preparation could prove particularly important as experts debate the feasibility of deep-space exploration in which living things would be sent to far reaches of space that have, so far, only been explored remotely.

“These changes might help explain why the body reacts badly to space flight,” Timothy Etheridge, of the University of Exeter said in a statement. “It also gives us some therapy targets in terms of reducing these health effects, which are currently a major barrier to deep-space exploration.”

According to the study, the researchers also exposed worms to high-gravity environments through the use of centrifuges and discovered that higher amounts of gravity can also have a notable impact on genetic makeup.

Given the possibility that space explorers will be exposed to high-gravity environments as well as low-gravity ones, researchers say this data can help them prepare treatments and develop strategies that could counteract potentially damaging gravity-induced consequences.

Craig Willis, also of the University of Exeter and lead author of the study, said that while this current research effort focused largely on worms, the information researchers collected could lay the groundwork for future efforts to explore the complex relationship between the weightless environment of space and humans.

“We have identified genes with roles in neuronal function and cellular metabolism that are affected by gravitational changes,” Willis said. “These worms display molecular signatures and physiological features that closely mirror those observed in humans, so our findings should provide foundations for a better understanding of spaceflight-induced health decline in mammals and, eventually, humans.”

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