Worm Went Into Space and Came Back With an Extra Head

Exploring the physical influences of space on cells, scientists have discovered an array of effects it has on flatworms.

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Flatworm two heads

We’ve come a long way since sending the first dog into space, but it seems there’s a lot more left for us to learn from similar practices. More than just an unexplored area, space provides conditions that are on a different scale than what we have here on Earth, and scientists have moved to explore its effects. Sending flatworms onto the International Space Station (ISS) a few years ago, researchers led by Tufts University scientists have had ample time to record and investigate the influence of outer space on these simple creatures, some of which are bound to surprise you.

The project had started in 2015 with two separate set of flatworms, creatures that have an extraordinary ability to regenerate and even form complete new individual worms from dissected parts of another. Knowing this, Tufts researchers had included the worms in the SpaceX Commercial Resupply Service Mission 5 on January 10 of the same year, sending the worms into space in a container with a bit of water.

The second Earth-bound group of worms were put in similar conditions: a container with spring water kept in darkness at 20 degrees Celsius. The idea was, of course, to compare the two after a certain period, seeing how space would influence the worms and their regenerative properties.

Flatworms in space, swimming
Flatworms swimming in space

The time spent in space was meant to show how microgravity and fluctuations in the geomagnetic field would affect these simple creatures, and to say that it yielded results is an understatement. Some of the specimens sent to space spontaneously divided themselves into identical worms, something their Earthen counterparts did not do over the five months course. Others spent more time in light than the worms on Earth do.

Most notably, one of the worms that had been previously dissected on Earth had grown two heads where there used to be one. Worms are normally able to grow whole heads or tails if cut off, but the one in space managed to grow a pair of heads when confronted with such issue. Not only that, but when the two heads were amputated at the base later on, another pair of heads grew out, making this a permanent evolvement of the worm.

Flatworm two heads
C and D show the two newly formed heads of the worm

“Scientists know a lot about biochemical signals that allow cells to cooperate to build and repair a complex body. However, the physical forces involved in this process are not well-understood… We want to learn more about how these forces affect anatomy, behavior and microbiology” said Michael Levin, professor of biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts.

The whole research had a fair number of limitations and irregularities between the two observed groups, but the scientists are certain of an influence of space on anatomical, behavioral, and bacteriological level, and are looking to set up future expeditions.

The yielded results could potentially be implemented into medicine, as well as help maintain those bound to space-flight. It’s a prospect that might see more interest in the near future, as there’s more and more talk of otherworldly installations and colonies.

Images sourced from: onlinelibrary.wiley.com.
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