Latest Space Shuttle Mission Lifts Off, Stuffed With Worms

Space Shuttle Atlantis took to the skies this week, carrying thousands of microscopic worms to be used in muscle-degeneration research. We already know these worms can handle spaceflight, because in 2003, another group of them survived a fall from orbit.

The worms aboard the current Atlantis mission, which launched on Monday, hail from Britain's University of Nottingham, where biologists hope to use their tiny lab subjects to gain insight into the ways that muscles develop and atrophy. Though the worm-testing will take place in zero gravity, it has applications here on the homeworld: people who are bedridden, or who have muscular dystrophy or diabetes, are among those who stand to benefit from this week's research.

The batch of worms currently orbiting Earth started life in a Bristol garbage dump. Given such humble origins, you'd never guess their prominence in modern science. The worms are Caenorhabditis elegans nematodes, a species prized for its archetypal genetic structure and often used in far-reaching experiments. In 1998, for example, C. elegans became the first multicellular organism to have its genome fully sequenced.

Part of the reason C. elegans was included in the current mission is its impressive NASA resume. In 2003, the shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry after a sixteen-day expedition, resulting in the deaths of all seven crew members. Some time later, a colony of C. elegans that had been on board was found in the crashed wreckage, alive and well.

The worms are just one part of a busy biology week at the International Space Station, where Atlantis is currently docked. A "Butterflies in Space" program will follow the development of a group of caterpillars that went up on the latest flight, and another set of experiments on the cambium tissue in a sampling of Canadian willows will explore how trees grow in microgravity. It's all important work, although you could argue that until we figure out whether ants can be trained to sort tiny screws in space, we haven't really learned anything.