Worms in Space! They Live Longer Back Home
Continuing today's theme of odd creatures that offer clues to longevity, we give you Caenorhabditis elegans. That's the scientific name of a species of (Ew!) roundworm. A group of these ick-factor invertebrates have just returned from a stay at the International Space Station and researchers from the University of Nottingham have found changes in the worms' toxic protein build-up and gene expression that may have implications for long lifespans in humans. Lead scientist Yoko Honda and colleagues published their findings in the online journal Scientific Reports. "How microgravitational space environments affect aging is not well understood," they wrote. "We observed that, in Caenorhabditis elegans, spaceflight suppressed the formation of transgenically expressed polyglutamine aggregates, which normally accumulate with increasing age. Moreover, the inactivation of each of seven genes that were down-regulated in space extended lifespan on the ground. These genes encode proteins that are likely related to neuronal or endocrine signaling . . . These results suggest that aging in C. elegans is slowed through neuronal and endocrine response to space environmental cues."
The team reports that their results suggest that environmental factors associated with spaceflight, including "microgravity," modulate neuronal or endocrine signaling to induce “longevity-promoting” processes such as dietary-restriction signaling, stabilization of protein structure, and "efficient life maintenance during harsh conditions." However, they cautioned that more research needs to be performed. In the meantime, since volunteering as a guest astronaut is no longer an option in the U.S., we'll just have to wait to see whether on-going research yields information that we can actually use to extend our own lifespans. But it's heartening to know that the scientific community is on the case!