New Brunswick, N.J. (Dec. 4, 2018) – Rutgers scientist Monica Driscoll is available to comment on a Molecular Muscle experiment involving thousands of C. elegans worms to be sent into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket tomorrow, conditions permitting.

The SpaceX capsule, bearing approximately 36,000 tiny worms in 72 bags, will likely dock with the International Space Station within hours. The project, sponsored by the European Space Agency and led by an international team including Driscoll, is focused on better understanding the muscle deterioration that occurs during prolonged space flight – and whether it can be overcome for extended stints at the International Space Station or long trips to Mars. Earthbound patients with muscle degeneration may also benefit from the findings.

“In the absence of gravity, muscle deteriorates very rapidly and we will need to stop that if humans are to make the six-month trip to Mars someday,” said Driscoll, distinguished professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. “The Molecular Muscle group, including scientists from the U.K., Japan, Korea, Greece and U.S., will look at subcellular changes that occur in muscle and neurons, candidate drugs that should help maintain muscle mass, and the relationship of degradation to accelerated aging.

“Our particular interest is in the neurons that influence muscle health – a less-focused aspect of zero gravity impact,” said Driscoll, who works in the School of Arts and Sciences. “We will send up middle-aged worms with labeled neurons and examine what happens to sensory neurons or motor neurons at the structure level. We will also study neuronal mitochondria.

“Our work using C. elegans, a model organism with fewer than 1,000 cells, is cool in several ways,” she said. “The animal is transparent, so we can look through the skin to see each neuron in the body in its native context (there are only 302 neurons overall). The worm lives only three weeks, so we can effectively track what happens to neurons during its adult life, mimicking what might be a long stint for a person on Mars. We know a lot about normal age-associated changes in neurons and muscle on Earth in terms of tissue and gene changes that can be compared with spaceflight consequences.

“Finally, we can engineer this animal any which way to test strategies for muscle and nerve maintenance solutions that might well translate to humans,” Driscoll said. “Although a focus here is on space, no one can ignore the tremendous spin-off discoveries from previous space efforts that improve life here on Earth.”

Driscoll is available to comment at [email protected]

Rutgers team members Richardo Laranjeiro ([email protected]) and Girish Harinath ([email protected]), a Rutgers graduate, are also available to comment.


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