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Microgravity Affects Genes

A genetic analysis of transparent nematodes Caenorhabditis elegans  on the International Space Station showed ‘subtle changes’ in about 1,000 genes; stronger effects were found in some genes, especially those responsible for neuronal function and cellular metabolism.

Willis et al. performed comparative transcriptomic analysis of Caenorhabditis elegans responses to varying degrees of hypergravity and to two spaceflight experiments. Image credit: Willis et al., doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101734.

Willis et al. performed comparative transcriptomic analysis of Caenorhabditis elegans responses to varying degrees of hypergravity and to two spaceflight experiments. Image credit: Willis et al., doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101734.

“We looked at levels of every gene in the worms’ genome and identified a clear pattern of genetic change,” said co-author Dr. Timothy Etheridge, a researcher in the Department of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter.

“These changes might help explain why the body reacts badly to space flight.”

“It also gives us some therapy targets in terms of reducing these health effects, which are currently a major barrier to deep-space exploration.”

In the study, Caenorhabditis elegans worms were exposed to low gravity on the International Space Station and to high gravity in centrifuges.

The high-gravity tests gave the researchers more data on gravity’s genetic impacts, and allowed them to look for possible treatments using high gravity in space.

“A crucial step towards overcoming any physiological condition is first understanding its underlying molecular mechanism,” said first author Dr. Craig Willis, also from the Department of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter.

“We have identified genes with roles in neuronal function and cellular metabolism that are affected by gravitational changes.”

“These worms display molecular signatures and physiological features that closely mirror those observed in humans, so our findings should provide foundations for a better understanding of spaceflight-induced health decline in mammals and, eventually, humans.”

“This study highlights the ongoing role of scientists from Europe and the UK in space flight life sciences research,” Dr. Etheridge said.

A paper on the findings was published in the journal iScience.

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Craig R.G. Willis et al. Comparative Transcriptomics Identifies Neuronal and Metabolic Adaptations to Hypergravity and Microgravity in Caenorhabditis elegans. iScience, published online November 25, 2020; doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2020.101734

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