Kentucky Space releases ISS experiment findings: This worm went to space and all it got was a second head

(A) shows the sliced worm (B) shows the worm with two heads and (C) and (D) are close-ups of each head. | Photo from Regeneration study

Scientists from Kentucky have released their findings on worms that they launched into space more than two years ago, but have yet to nail down why one of the worms came back with two heads.

Kentucky Space’s Space Tango and Exomedicine Institute initiated the experiment to the International Space Station looking for answers that might be applicable to human health care on Earth. It involved sending planarian worms — actually, worm pieces, each worm was sliced in three — to space for five weeks.

Planarian worms have a remarkable capacity for rebuilding organs and nervous systems after damage, and they were on the ISS to see how the conditions in space would affect their regeneration, according to Kentucky Space.

When the worms were returned to Earth, they were studied for 20 months against a control group of worms that didn’t leave the planet.

The experiment was done in conjunction with Dr. Michael Levin of Tufts University. They released their findings on June 13 in “Regeneration.”

Planarians are largely carnivorous, non-parasitic worms that are both aquatic and terrestrial. They can be sliced into pieces and each piece will regenerate into a separate organism, growing a new head or a new tail or both. But never a head on either end, according to Kris Kimel, founder of Kentucky Space and Idea Festival (among other things).

“That never happens on Earth unless chemicals are involved,” he told Insider.

When asked to speculate on how it happened, he said, “It could be a number of things, including the microgravity and the changes in the worm’s electromagnetic field.”

“Now, we have to do the second iteration,” he said. Scientists are currently designing that experiment, and Kimel expects to launch it to the space station in late 2017, early 2018.

“Science Friday’sIra Flatow asked Tufts researcher Levin why all the worms were not affected in the same way.

Mission Patch | Courtesy of Kentucky Space

Lavin said that biological variability — why there is variation in all species– is a whole field of study and it’s compelling. “For example, certain medical treatments affect different people differently.” Variability is still seen in planaria worms, which are genetically identical because they come from one parent worm, he explained.

According to the study, in the Earth lab, some of the space worms curled up in a paralyzed state for a few hours when immersed in spring water. Eventually, they returned to normal, but the control worms didn’t react that way. Many of the space worms spent less time in darkness than the control worms did. The space worms also had different bacterial communities inside of them which upset their metabolism and secretion.

All of this in service of regenerational science as it applies to medicine. Planaria worms are essentially immortal. They regenerate whatever body parts that are “getting old,” Levin said.

Kentucky Space will be adding a second lab to the ISS in August when SpaceX 12 is launched. TangoLab-2 will allow 42 or more experiments to be conducted simultaneously on the Space Station, according to Kimel. TangoLab-1 was installed on Aug. 1, 2016 by astronaut Jeff Williams.