Enduring spinning forces that would kill a human being, tiny worms are being observed by a student-designed video system in NASA studies seeking to explore how life adapts to gravity beyond Earth.

Miniature worms, only 1 millimeter long and so small they are hard to see with the naked eye, are being spun in a centrifuge for as long as four days — at forces of 20- to100-times that of Earth’s gravity (1 G). In contrast, human pilots not wearing anti-G suits can black out at as low as 3 Gs, and prolonged exposure at higher Gs can be life threatening. To examine the worms as they spin, scientists are using a video system designed and constructed by students at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif. The studies are taking place at NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.

“By looking at what changes occur in the worms when they transition from high-G forces to normal gravity, we think we can predict what will happen to them when they experience near weightlessness during space flight,” said principal investigator Catharine Conley, a biologist at NASA Ames. “In the future, we want to fly the worms in space, subjecting them to microgravity to see if our predictions are correct.” Microgravity is close to ‘zero gravity.’

“Radiation levels in space are much higher than they are on the Earth’s surface,” Conley said. “We know that elevated radiation increases the mutation rate of living things. Because these worms reproduce every four days, we can look quickly at many worm generations in space to see how radiation and microgravity may cause changes later,” she explained.

“Worms have already flown aboard the space shuttle, and it was found that they went through several generations without gross structural changes to their bodies,” Conley said. “We want to test the gene expression in worms that have flown in space versus those that have not, to see if changes in worms are similar to changes seen in vertebrates that have experienced space flight.” Expression is how a gene affects a characteristic such as eye color, or susceptibility to a disease or condition.

During preliminary tests, scientists spun the 1 mm worms (technically known as Caenorhabditis elegans, a soil-dwelling nematode worm) in a large 20-G centrifuge at NASA Ames for four days, but they could see what happened to the worms only after the centrifuge, designed to carry human passengers, stopped. At 20 Gs, the worms are subjected to forces that are 20 times their normal weight.

“Should our hypothesis prove correct, it will validate Caenorhabditis elegans [nemotode] as an extremely useful and cost-effective model organism for studying responses to space flight at the molecular, genetic and whole-organism levels,” Conley said.

When Conley was planning her current experiments that utilize a smaller, desktop centrifuge, she realized she would need a camera no bigger than an ice cube that could broadcast signals from the spinning apparatus to a TV monitor and recorder in real time. So she turned to the Student Engineering Clinic at Harvey Mudd College to produce the camera system. Five Harvey Mudd students spent an academic year on the project. They bought off-the-shelf components, but they had to overcome several engineering challenges to enable the system to work well.

“The camera had to be supported to withstand the 100-Gs force,” said Professor Joseph King, director of the clinic. “All this stuff is designed so it is compatible with the geometry of the centrifuge.” The equipment also has two broadcast systems, an infrared system to control the camera, and a wireless, video transmission system to broadcast movies of the worms.

“During spinning there are changes in the worms’ gene expression that seem to help them compensate for the increased apparent gravity, allowing them to survive,” Conley said. The worm has about 19,000 genes, and it has nerves, muscles and some of the same types of organs in people that are affected by weightlessness.

Astronauts can suffer from motion sickness, bone loss, muscle degeneration (atrophy) and blood vessel problems during weightlessness. “By studying how the worms produce different levels of proteins that help the tiny organisms cope with high-G situations, we think we eventually can develop treatments, perhaps even oral drugs, for astronauts to serve as countermeasures to problems due to weightlessness.”

After the worms endure high G forces riding in a centrifuge, the animals’ behavior alters. That is part of what the scientists look for to find out how the creatures handle changes in gravity’s force. Normally, under 1-G conditions, the miniscule creatures look like small, clear wiggly rods that swim snake-style through a thin layer of water and nutrients in which they live in a laboratory environment. The worms commonly are found in soil and rotting vegetation, and have about a thousand cells.

In addition to Conley’s work, the Harvey Mudd Student Engineering Clinic program was involved in about 40 projects from various companies, institutions and sponsors this year. During past years, the clinic has participated in about 10 NASA projects, according to King.

King may be reached at this e-mail address: Joseph_King@HMC.Edu. More information about the clinic is available on the World Wide Web at: http://emat.eng.hmc.edu

Conley’s research is detailed on her Web site at: http://lifesci.arc.nasa.gov/conley/home

The NASA Fundamental Biology program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute fund the worms-in- space project. Life sciences research at Ames is supported by NASA’s Office of Biological and Physical Research, which promotes basic and applied research to support human exploration of space and to take advantage of the space environment as a laboratory. More information is available at:


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