Worms in Space!
Pitt researchers study some unusual astronauts
Beth Oczypok is in a hurry. She’s scheduled to greet a group of important travelers who have been away for quite some time—generations in fact. It’s essential that she be there when they arrive. They’re carrying important information destined for multiple nations. But now Oczypok and her mentor, Nate Szewczyk, are racing to the airport—without tickets—to try to catch a red-eye, cross-country flight from Florida to California, where the travelers’ flight was rerouted because of cloud cover. Though anxious, Oczypok isn’t entirely surprised by the complication—such are the trials and tribulations of space travel. And the travelers won’t complain about the change in schedule: They’re worms, thousands of them.
Oczypok, a Pitt sophomore, never imagined a summer spent welcoming worms from space. But since she started a research project in Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences, she has encountered a few unexpected opportunities—and unusual travel plans.
She and Szewczyk, who earned a PhD in biological sciences from Pitt in 2002, are taking part in research that crosses national borders and rockets into orbit. The work centers on a very common terrestrial creature—a microscopic worm called Caenorhabditis elegans—that is proving to be a key subject for the study of the effects of spaceflight and long-term weightlessness. The experiments are part of international C. elegans research among scientists in the United States, Canada, and Malaysia.
The Pitt experiment focuses on the effects of a zero-gravity spaceflight environment on muscles. It’s well documented that astronauts experience muscle atrophy while in space, but many questions remain, including what happens at a molecular level to trigger the degradation. Although it’s difficult to study the long-term adaptation of human physiology to spaceflight, C. elegans provides a surprising substitute. Its genetic structure has been completely mapped. Many of the worm’s 20,000 genes perform the same functions as those in humans.
For researchers studying muscle atrophy like Szewczyk and Oczypok, the combination of C. elegans and spaceflight is ideal. “You can see that the molecular causes of muscle atrophy in worms are the same as those in people, and you can potentially find treatments for muscle atrophy in worms much faster than in people,” says Szewczyk, a Pitt research assistant professor during Oczypok’s summer research stint and now an associate professor at England’s University of Nottingham.
Szewczyk, Oczypok, and their international colleagues partnered with a company called BioServe Space Technologies, which offered precious shuttle space to transport the worms to their temporary home aboard the International Space Station. The worms spent six months in space; that equals about 28 generations in worm years, the most of any animal studied in space. With hundreds of thousands of minute worms to keep track of, the two Pitt researchers welcomed some help.
Fortunately, they linked their project with an educational outreach group called Orion’s Quest. Real-time video downlinks and special software enabled schoolchildren around the globe to participate in the research, tracking the number of worms and their levels of development. The video capabilities proved a major boon for Szewczyk and Oczypok as well.
“It was the first time we were able to see these things in space because we never had video capabilities before,” says Szewczyk. “And not only were we seeing it, but we were seeing it in real time with kids in the United States, Canada, and Malaysia. It was a real good way to get these kids excited about science.”
The researchers’ findings confirmed that C. elegans also experiences muscle atrophy, just as human astronauts do during long-term stays in space. “There is decreased expression of genetic factors that make muscles what they are and function as they do,” says Szewczyk. “When the worms come back from space, they have a movement defect, just like people. Do they move normally in space? Yes, they do.”
By identifying the molecular-level cause of the atrophy, Szewczyk and Oczypok aimed eventually to find ways to counter it. Oczypok, majoring in molecular biology and considering a career in medicine, has already focused on a muscle attachment protein complex that, when decreased in C. elegans, results in muscle atrophy. The same complex decreases in response to spaceflight. Her project earned her the 2007 Alison Bentley Kephart award, an annual prize that goes to an undergraduate who has demonstrated outstanding potential for a successful career in biological sciences.
“Maybe this complex is regulating muscle atrophy in space,” says Szewczyk. “The big goal for Beth is to figure out how that protein degradation is occurring and how to block it. If she can block it here in the lab, then maybe she can see if it blocks muscle atrophy in space. Then it can potentially become a treatment for astronauts, or even for stress-related injuries in sports and exercise.” Other potential conditions that could ultimately be addressed are muscle loss due to malnutrition, nerve damage, aging, sepsis, and cancer.
After an overnight flight with some driving tacked on, Szewczyk and Oczypok make the trip from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to California’s Edwards Air Force Base, where the space shuttle Atlantis touches down with its precious, wriggling cargo.
A mere six hours later, they have the worms safely ensconced in hardware that looks like a box of oversize photographic slides, and the exhausted Oczypok has a memorable travel story. Not to mention an out-of-this-world addition to her scientific résumé.
Breakthroughs in the Making
Bye Bye Pinkeye
An antibody called gamma globulin was once routinely used to protect international travelers from infectious diseases. Now, the same antibody appears to cure a much more common affliction—pinkeye, which is highly contagious. In a Pitt study led by Andrea Gambotto, assistant professor of surgery in the School of Medicine, gamma globulin effectively treated more than 90 percent of the virus strains that cause pinkeye. Currently, there are no treatments that target the virus.
Palladium and platinum are rare precious metals coveted by the automotive, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. The metals are used as catalysts to produce essential chemical reactions. Typically, finding the metals involves expensive instruments operated by specialists. But Pitt researchers in the laboratory of chemistry professor Kazunori Koide have unearthed a fast, easy, and inexpensive method for discovering palladium/platinum deposits and for streamlining palladium detection during pharmaceutical production. The Pitt process takes approximately one hour and accommodates hundreds of samples at once versus the traditional
single-sample process over the course of days.