Washington: Tiny roundworms are going to help researchers at the International Space Station (ISS) learn ways to keep astronauts healthy on long-duration space missions.
Two Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) investigations on the ISS will help the team seek clues to physiological problems found in astronauts like bone and muscle loss by studying Caenorhabditis elegans - a millimeter-long roundworm that is widely used as a model for larger organisms.
The findings may also be beneficial to people on the Earth suffering from muscle and bone diseases.
"Space flight-induced health changes such as decreases in muscle and bone mass are a major challenge facing our astronauts," said Julie Robinson, chief scientist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Even with assigned daily exercise, the bodies of astronauts in microgravity lose bone and muscle mass.
This is the same problem facing people who are on prolonged bed rest.
Part of the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft's latest supply mission, one investigation is called alterations of C. elegans muscle fibres by microgravity (Nematode Muscle).
It will look into the muscle fibres and cytoskeleton of the roundworm to clarify how those physiological systems alter in response to microgravity.
A different investigation is taking a much closer look at C. elegans by examining their DNA.
"The astronauts will cultivate multiple generations of the organism so we can examine the organisms in different states of development," said Atsushi Higashitani, principal investigator for both investigations with Tohoku University in Miyagi, Japan.
These tiny roundworm could lead to a cure for symptoms affecting millions of the ageing and infirm population of Earth and the astronauts orbiting it, he concluded.