The experiment, which was reported last June by Mindy Weisberger from LIVE SCIENCE, chronicled the findings of scientists and their hypothesis. “Scientists sent the worms into space to observe how micro-gravity and fluctuations in the geomagnetic field might affect the worms’ unusual ability to regenerate. This was done to better understand how living in space could affect cell activity.” As technology has advanced and astronauts spend longer periods of time in space, scientists and researchers want to better understand what the effects of living in space have on all sorts of organisms and not just humans. When a human goes into space and experiences a lack of gravity working on the body, effects such as bone loss, fatigue, and a weakened immune system are just some of the things that can happen. With scientists studying the regenerative powers of worms, this knowledge may possibly be used to reverse or minimize the risks to astronauts in space. Additionally, this research may also benefit humans on earth as it relates to treating various forms of disease and infection.
The worms were sent into space to the International Space Station for five weeks where the worms were stored in containers with spring water and air. Scientists reported that after the worms were in space for about an hour, they curled up into balls and experienced something called water shock. At the two-hour mark in space, the worms unraveled from the little balls they were in and continued to exhibit changes.
Some interesting things which scientists noticed were the worms’ microbial communities had changed. When the worms were re-examined on earth, it was discovered that some worms formed into identical twins. Other worms developed an urge to always be in the light.
The part of the experiment where worm fragments were sent into space equally shocked scientists. It was discovered that these fragments still retained their regenerative powers, and this is where a two-headed worm came from. “But the most dramatic difference was a type of regeneration observed in one of the 15 worm fragments sent to the ISS. That worm returned to the scientists with two heads (one on each end of its body), a type of regeneration so rare as to be practically unheard of — “normal flatworms in water never do this,” Levin told Live Science. When the researchers snipped both heads off back on Earth, the middle portion regenerated into a two-headed worm again.”
As space travel becomes more advanced and astronauts spend longer periods of time in the International Space Station, scientists will need to develop protocols to reverse the effects of a lengthy stay in space. This, in turn, will allow for longer missions, and the development of additional technologies.
On earth, the ramifications of this research on worms will have far-reaching implications in the medical field. Regenerative medicine therapies such as recapitulating organ and tissue structure via scaffold fabrication, 3D bioprinting, and self-assembly have already received FDA approval and have been in the pre-clinical phase since 2015. Michael Levin, a co-author of the study and a professor of biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts stated, “Studying flatworms could offer insights into how biological systems in living creatures interact with gravity and the geomagnetic field, which in turn will not only help us optimize future space travel, but will [also] shed light on basic mechanisms that will have implications for regenerative medicine therapies on Earth and in space.”
Scientists have known for a while that flatworms possessed unique regenerative powers, but not until this study have these astonishing results were revealed. In the future, medical patients needing an organ donation may not have to wait as long on a list, those needing knee surgery can get tissue replaced instead of just repaired, and athletes who might otherwise have a career ending injury could be treated with technology developed from this study and get them back at 100%.
If you are interested in reading the complete findings, you can read it on the Wiley Online Library website in the Regeneration study.