Researchers have discovered that after extended flights in space, a microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C elegans) undergoes genetic changes that help it to love longer.
The discovery was made by an international group of scientists studying the loss of bone and muscle mass experienced by astronauts after extended flights in space. The results of the research have been published in the online journal Scientific Reports.
The research involves scientists from the University of Nottingham and other scientists from Japan, France, the US, and Canada.
They discovered that spaceflight suppressed accumulation of toxic proteins that normally accumulate within aging muscle. They also discovered a group of genes that are expressed at lower levels during spaceflight. When the expression of these same genes was lowered in worms back on earth the worms lived longer.
"We identified seven genes, which were down-regulated in space and whose inactivation extended lifespan under laboratory conditions," stated Dr Szewczyk, an expert in muscle metabolism.
According to the report, C elegans was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genetic structure completely mapped and many of its 20,000 genes perform the same functions as those in humans. Two thousand of these genes have a role in promoting muscle function and 50 to 60 per cent of these have very obvious human counterparts.
The experiment in 2004 involved a consignment of live worms being despatched to the International Space Station (ISS) onboard the Dutch Delta mission.
He uses worms which originate from a rubbish dump in Bristol. C elegans often feed on decaying fruit and vegetable matter. They have since taken part in five spaceflights to the ISS with the aim of learning more about the effect of microgravity on the physiology of the human body.
Notably, in 2003 Dr Szewczyk's C elegans made the news when they survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Living in petri dishes and enclosed in aluminium canisters the worms survived re-entry and impact on the ground and were recovered weeks after the disaster.
The BBC reported that the team found that the muscles of the well-travelled worms exhibited smaller amounts of polyglutamine aggregates, tangles of protein that tended to accumulate in the muscles as animals aged. But they also found five genes that were more "switched off" than the worms that had stayed on earth.