Great news for all of our readers who are worms who have also spent a significant amount of time in space: you're going to live longer. For the rest of our audience (i.e. the humans), what's good for worms may be good for you as well.
It's fairly obvious that humans aren't designed for spaceflight. Our bodies have adapted to an environment that's chock full o' gravity, and when we spend a lot of time avoiding said gravity, our bodies can (and do) re-adapt themselves for more efficient zero gravity operation. These adaptations include:
- Absorption of muscle and bone mass, since humans are structurally overengineered for weightlessness
- Shedding of calluses on the bottom of feet, since feet don't need to carry body weight
- Loss of 20% of blood volume, since autonomic maintenance of blood pressure is unnecessary
Generally, these adaptations aren't good news for any astronaut who plans to eventually return to Earth, which is why the ISS has a bunch of gravity-simulating exercise equipment on board. But some new research on space worms from the University of Nottingham in the U.K. suggests that some of the muscle changes that astronauts undergo could actually increase their lifespan by suppressing the creation of toxic proteins that normally accumulate within aging muscle.
Additionally, the researchers found that in space, C. elegans worms had muscles that atrophied just like humans muscles, and as part of that process, seven genes related to muscle development inside the worms were down-regulated. Down-regulating these same genes in worms on Earth caused those worms to live longer, and human muscles may work in a similar manner.
It's hard to tell at this point whether spaceflight is overall a good thing or a bad thing for human health. It's definitely true that prolonged weightlessness can cause a significant number of long-term issues once humans return to Earth, and the high radiation environment is nothing to be sneeze at either. But this research suggests that there might be some significant health benefits as well, potentially making trips to Mars (and beyond) slightly safer than they would be otherwise.