As vital as space travel may be in the future, present-day science and technology have still not been able to address key issues that severely limit space flight and in particular manned space flight. With distances in space being so vast, travel itself ceases to remain counted in the mere hours, but goes so far beyond our usual time keeping that any plausible journey, say to within any planet in our Solar System, will easily take years, with travel to distant stars and solar systems taking far longer. Of course prolonging the age of future astronauts or indeed halting it will be integral to space flight and science fiction has already shown the way, often resorting to stasis pods or suspended animation to keep astronauts alive and well on their decades-long journeys.
Present-day research into the above has often involved taking worms into space and a recent research has revealed quite interesting results. A study conducted by the University of Nottingham in collaboration with a number of Japanese universities and published in the journal, Scientific Reports, found that upon study, worms that had been taken into space and brought back had undergone genetic changes.
The worms in question, Caenorhabditis elegans worms, were taken to the International Space Station (ISS) for an 11-day period and after being brought back, the researchers found that certain genetic changes that related to the ageing of the worms had occurred. It was noted that the space faring worms had undergone changes to 5 genes that related to ageing; the genes themselves experiencing a reduction in activity. The researchers also noted that if these 5 genes, which themselves were responsible for signalling in the nervous and metabolic systems were to be suppressed in Earth-bound worms, it would result into longer lifespans in the worms.
Commenting on the study, University of Nottingham researcher Dr. Nathaniel Szewczyk said, "It would appear that these genes are involved in how the worm senses the environment and signals changes in metabolism in order to adapt to the environment. Most of us know that muscle tends to shrink in space. These latest results suggest that this is almost certainly an adaptive response rather than a pathological one. Counter-intuitively, muscle in space may age better than on Earth. It may also be that spaceflight slows the process of ageing.”
In addition to the genetic changes, the nematode worms also saw changes in their muscles, with a decrease in the production of the protein polyglutamine aggregates, which tend to age the muscles of animals as they accumulate.