Living at low gravity affects cells at the genetic level

Space worms experiment reveals gravity affects genes.


Space exploration can have negative effects on living organisms. Significant adverse effects of long-term weightlessness include muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton. Other notable effects include a slowing of cardiovascular system functions, decreased production of red blood cells, balance disorders, eyesight disorders, and changes in the immune system.

There is no doubt that space does mysterious things to a body. Many studies reveal cellular changes in their spinal cords, eyes, and brains that, in many cases, resemble deterioration due to diseases on Earth, particularly those related to aging.

What exactly happens to your body in space?

A new study by the University of Exeter and the NASA GeneLab seems to found the answer. The research could help understand why living organisms—including humans—suffer a physical decline in space.

The study involves a space worms experiment. Genetic analysis of Caenorhabditis elegans worms on the International Space Station showed “subtle changes” in about 1,000 genes. 

Scientists observed strong effects in some genes, especially among neurons. It indicates that living at low gravity affects cells at the genetic level.

Dr. Timothy Etheridge of the University of Exeter said, “We looked at levels of every gene in the worms’ genome and identified a clear pattern of genetic change. These changes might help explain why the body reacts badly to space flight.”

“It also gives us some therapy targets in terms of reducing these health effects, which are currently a major barrier to deep-space exploration.”

Scientists exposed worms to low gravity on the International Space Station and high gravity in centrifuges during the experiment.

The high-gravity tests gave the analysts more information on gravity’s genetic impacts and permitted them to search for potential medicines using high gravity in space.

Lead author Craig Willis, of the University of Exeter, said, “A crucial step towards overcoming any physiological condition is first understanding its underlying molecular mechanism. We have identified genes with roles in neuronal function and cellular metabolism that are affected by gravitational changes.”

“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.”

Dr. Etheridge added: “This study highlights the ongoing role of scientists from Europe and the UK in space flight life sciences research.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Craig R.G. Willis et al. Comparative Transcriptomics Identifies Neuronal and Metabolic Adaptations to Hypergravity and Microgravity in Caenorhabditis elegans. DOI: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101734
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