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Brit rubbish-dump worms in space station science triumph

Garbage-scoffing creatures prove zero G therapy

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An international boffinry alliance, by means of sending a huge colony of worms found scoffing rotting vegetables in a Bristol rubbish dump on a trip to the International Space Station, has found a cure for the muscle wasting suffered by astronauts living in zero/micro gravity.

The worms in question were of the species Caenorhabditis elegans, and were supplied by boffins at Nottingham uni having originally been found browsing a dump in Bristol. Many of C elegans' genes perform the same function as those in humans, and the scientists wanted to see if RNA interference therapy (RNAi) could be used to fight the serious loss of muscle which astronauts are subject to during long spaceflights.

Some millions of the worms were sent up aboard space shuttle Atlantis on the STS-129 mission in 2009, and subsequently treated in the station's Japanese-built "Kibo" lab podule. They were subsequently brought back to Earth on the next shuttle to visit, Endeavour (now retired), executing mission STS-130.

"It was really a quite straightforward experiment," says Nottingham uni's Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk. "Once the worms were in space the scientists onboard the International Space Station treated them with RNAi and then returned them to us for post flight analysis.

"These results are very exciting as they clearly demonstrate that RNAi can be used effectively to block proteins which are needed for muscle to shrink."

Szewczyk's colleague and fellow space garbage-worm gene therapy boffin, Dr Timothy Etheridge, added: "We were very pleased... our experiments allowed us to demonstrate that this form of gene therapy works effectively during spaceflight. The unexpected finding that RNAi can effectively block protein degradation in muscle in space was also a very welcome surprise."

The experiment was part of the Japanese CERISE payload and funded by the US National Institute of Health and the UK Medical Research Council. Japanese scientists contributed much of the research. The findings are also expected to prove useful in fighting muscle loss due to old age and illness.

You can read full boffinry on the study here, courtesy of the journal PLoS ONE. ®

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