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Stanford Report, May 7, 2003

Tiny worms in medical center experiment survive shuttle crash


Nothing was expected to survive the breakup of the space shuttle Columbia over the Southwest three months ago. Imagine NASA’s surprise upon opening five canisters that had been found in the debris field — some of the 78,000 pieces of wreckage recovered — and in each, discovering a thriving colony of experimental worms.

The tiny creatures, no larger than a speck of fuzz on a sweater, were part of a study put together by NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University Medical Center researcher Stuart Kim, PhD, associate professor of developmental biology and of genetics, to see how the worms fared in space.

Tiny C. elegans worms like this one play a critical role in science. Canisters full of the worms, part of a Stanford research project, managed to survive the Columbia shuttle disaster three months ago. Photo: Courtesy of Stuart Kim

"I was very surprised they survived," said Kim of the worms he sent into space. "I just thought that the explosion would melt them and then they would either freeze or burn to death on the way down from the upper atmosphere. Then the impact to the Earth didn’t shatter the canister and spill them all out. That’s just remarkable."

The extraordinary worms are called C. elegans, and are one of the cornerstones upon which animal studies are based (the others being mice, fruit flies and yeast).

Kim has been using C. elegans for years to better understand development and aging. He recently began a collaboration with NASA scientist Catharine Conley to use the tiny worms on the space shuttle as "canaries in a coal mine," he explained. "The idea is that we don’t know all the things that are going on in space. We know that there are cosmic rays and that there are major changes to the physiology of the astronaut. What’s hard to do is to make a guess from Earth about all the things that are going wrong and test them one by one."

With C. elegans, which have only about 1,000 cells and whose genome was the first to be entirely sequenced, the process of figuring out what is going on is vastly simplified. Kim explained that the worms’ simplicity and their similarity to higher organisms make them ideal experimental subjects for discovering what happens during a space flight.

"Worms age, worms have muscles, worms have neurons," he said. "The idea will be to send worms up into space and record all the physiological differences that occur in them at once. Then we can figure out which of the processes are changing and do specific tests to see how and why they change instead of just guessing blindly as to what might be going on."

The experiment on Columbia was to prove that C. elegans could grow in space with virtually no care required. If there is anything positive to take from the shuttle disaster, it is that scientists can be assured they have a proven experimental workhorse with which to easily ask questions about how being in space affects life.

While the future of the space shuttle program remains unclear, Kim said that through NASA, a new batch of worms will be making their next space voyage aboard a Russian rocket in the not-too-distant future.

High-altitude medicine is focus of lecture (2/5/03)