Space oddity: Flatworm sent into orbit returns to Earth with an extra head

peggy whitson exercise aurora iss
NASA/ISS
Two and a half years ago, scientists sent a handful of flatworms to the International Space Station to study how these simple invertebrates handle space environments. They weren’t overly concerned with the worms’ well-being. Their end goal was to investigate how space will impact future human astronauts.

“We were interested to explore the effects of space travel — including loss of the geomagnetic and gravitational field — on regeneration of complex organs,” Michael Levin, a Tufts University biologist who worked on the project, told Digital Trends. Specifically, the researchers wanted to explore “exomedicine,” medicine in zero gravity.

Planarian flatworms are well-known for their regenerative abilities, and are often used in medical research. In this study, the scientists amputated one set of the space-bound planaria and left the other set intact. They then packed them in separate test tubes half-filled with water, and launched them into space aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft.

flatworm space exomedicine study
Junji Morokuma, Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University
Junji Morokuma, Allen Discovery Center at Tufts University

The two sets of specimens spent five weeks each aboard the ISS, while control worms were kept on Earth. When the specimens returned from orbit, researchers realized space can do freaky things to flatworms.

One unusual finding was that the intact flatworms underwent spontaneous fission — meaning it split itself into two identical bodies — while the control flatworms didn’t. The space-traveling worms also responded to light and temperature significantly differently than their earthbound counterparts.

But strangest of all, one of the amputated flatworms returned to Earth with an extra head. None of the Tufts team had ever witnessed spontaneous generation of a second head, and they’d worked with 15,000 control worms in the past five years alone.

These events didn’t happen by chance either, according to Levin. “It was definitely caused by the overall process of space travel,” he said, “although we can’t say yet whether it was specifically the zero gravity, zero geomagnetic field, or the vibrations/stress of liftoff and landing that caused it.”

The researchers recognize that there were limitations imposed by sample size and the difficulty in re-creating certain space stresses, such as temperature. However, Levin and his team’s big takeaway is that space can affect organisms in really interesting ways, and that it’s important for us to understand these impacts before we start launching humans on long-haul missions. NASA has also provided unique human samples to investigate in its Twin Study.

“It’s clear that researching how space travel affects complex biological systems is interesting not only for exomedicine but also for understanding basic aspects of living systems here on Earth,” he said.

A paper detailing the study will be published this week in the journal Regeneration.

Emerging Tech

Does a steam-powered spacecraft hold the key to exploring the solar system?

A newly developed spacecraft prototype capable of using steam as a propellent may help the first miners survey potential dig sites and identify space rocks best fit for mining missions. Future versions may be fitted with sensors, allowing…
Emerging Tech

After Kepler kicks the bucket, NASA releases its final image

The final images from the Kepler Space Telescope have arrived. After nearly a decade of operation, NASA’s groundbreaking telescope ran out of fuel last year and was placed into permanent sleep mode on October 30, 2018.
Deals

Charge your smartphone with Anker’s wireless charger pad, now half off on Amazon

A wireless charger can declutter your space and make charging your phone super convenient. Anker is one of the most popular brands and right now Amazon is discounting Anker's 10W wireless charging pad at half off.
Emerging Tech

Virgin Galactic donates record-breaking SpaceShipTwo rocket to the Smithsonian

Private space company Virgin Galactic recently donated the record-breaking rocket motor of SpaceShipTwo — aka VSS Unity — to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Emerging Tech

Photosynthesizing artificial leaf may be the air-cleaning tool we’ve dreamed of

Engineers from the University of Illinois at Chicago have invented an artificial leaf which could both clean up our air and provide a cost-effective type of fuel. Here's how it works.
Mobile

These 13 gadgets walk a fine line between ingenious and insane

The annual avalanche of devices and gadgets is astounding, but how many will succeed? A few are destined to spark new trends, while the majority fade deservedly into obscurity. We look at some gadgets on the border of brilliant and bonkers.
Emerging Tech

Global Good wants to rid the world of deadly diseases with lasers and A.I.

Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates, aims to eradicate diseases that kill children in developing nations. It tackles difficult problems with high-tech prototypes.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-powered website creates freakishly lifelike faces of people who don’t exist

No, this isn't a picture of a missing person. It's a face generated by a new artificial intelligence on the website ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com. Here's how the impressive A.I. works.
Emerging Tech

China’s mind-controlled cyborg rats are proof we live in a cyberpunk dystopia

Neuroscience researchers from Zhejiang University, China, have created a method that allows humans to control the movements of rats using a technology called a brain-brain interface.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s MAVEN orbiter has a new job as a communication relay for Mars 2020

NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) orbiter has been collecting atmospheric readings but now is taking on a new job as a data relay satellite for the Mars 2020 mission that launches next year.
Emerging Tech

Underground volcanoes could explain possible liquid water on Mars

Last year scientists discovered there could be liquid water on Mars. Now a research team argues that for there to be liquid water, there must be an underground source of heat -- and they believe underground volcanoes could be responsible.
Emerging Tech

The 10 most expensive drones that you (a civilian) can buy

OK, these drones may be a bit beyond your budget: Check out the most expensive drones in the world, from industrial giants to highest-end filming tools.
Emerging Tech

Of all the vape pens in the world, these 5 are the best

Vaping concentrates has become significantly more popular, especially among those that use cannabis for medicinal purposes. But don’t use just any vape pen: we found these five devices to be our favorites in 2018.
Computing

The HoloLens 2 will be announced at MWC. Here's what we know about it so far

The HoloLens 2 is ripe for an announcement. Here's what Microsoft has revealed so far, what's likely in store for the next generation HoloLens, and everything that we know about this mixed reality headset.