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Allen Discovery Center researchers use space-traveling worms to understand regenerative health

June 20, 2017

Researchers led by the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts have used space-traveling worms to gain insights on how gravity and geomagnetic fields can impact anatomy. Flatworms that spent five weeks aboard the International Space Station displayed some surprising changes in body plan upon their return to Earth, including the generation of a rare double-headed worm. The research has implications for human and animal space travelers and for regenerative and bioengineering science.

Planaria flatworms are frequently used for studies because of their remarkable ability to regenerate when parts of their bodies are amputated. In this study, which was published in the journal Regeneration, researchers sent whole and fragmented worms to space. One of the fragments that spent time in space regenerated into a rare double-headed worm—a surprising result in itself. Even more surprising, when the double-headed worm was amputated, its fragments also developed into double-headed worms, suggesting that the change in the body plan was permanent.

“During regeneration, development, and cancer suppression, body patterning is subject to the influence of physical forces, such as electric fields, magnetic fields, electromagnetic fields, and other biophysical factors,” says Michael Levin, Ph.D., director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts. “We want to learn more about how these forces affect anatomy, behavior and microbiology.”

“As humans transition toward becoming a space-faring species, it is important that we deduce the impact of space flight on regenerative health for the sake of medicine and the future of space laboratory research,” added Junji Morokuma, research associate in Levin’s lab and first author on the paper.

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