Worms Live Longer in Space

Stop your herbal teas, gymming routine and nutrient supplements. There may be a new way to increase lifespan, and it involves leaving the planet.

Worms on a Plane

The above is a huge exaggeration, but leaving the earth was exactly what a sample of the worm C.elegans (or Caenorhabditis elegans) was subjected to. The effects of microgravity environments in space on human ageing and lifespan are not known. In order to study the physiological effects of microgravity on astronauts, they used this model organism and shuttled it off to space. These worms spent nine days at the International Space Station. These weren’t the first of their species to explore space, though. These worms were part of the Columbia space shuttle too, and made news then for having survived the tragedy.

Credit: Bob Goldstein at http://labs.bio.unc.edu/Goldstein/movies.html
This roundworm might just hold the answers to increasing lifespan. The body is transparent, one of the reasons it is a model organism in biology.

Spaceflight Suppresses Toxic Proteins

They found that polyglutamine aggregates (which are just a type of protein that accumulates with ageing in muscle) were suppressed in these worms. This was the ‘marker’ they used to test for how much the worms aged. Moreover, they identified seven genes which were down-regulated in space. When these very genes were inactivated in worms on earth, these worms lived longer too.

These proteins clearly respond to some environmental cues from the extra-terrestrial environment and we’re seeing that these responses have an adaptive aspect to them, for they actually increase lifespan. Human muscle has been found to contract in space, and this has been thought to be a bad effect, but these results form the worm tell us that this might also be a beneficial adaptation in the long run. As Dr Szewczyk says, “Counter-intuitively, muscle in space may age better than on Earth. It may also be that spaceflight slows the process of ageing.”


Published by

Shweta Ramdas

Beginning life as a grad student studying human genetics.