Skip to main content

Public Health and Sport Sciences

C. elegans for human muscle health

  • Skeletal muscle is essential for maintaining the health of our whole body. When muscle is lost (e.g. during older age, bedrest, injury, or spaceflight) we are much more likely to become ill and immobile.
  • Our group aims to understand the signals that regulate muscle health in youth and older age.
  • C. elegans is a small (1 mm) worm that is an excellent model of human ageing, and of muscle health.
  • We use this information to inform new therapies that optimise exercise responsiveness and also promote healthy ageing.
  • We take a translational approach that combines fundamental research in worms with human clinical trials.

Current projects

Our research

We discovered that cell adhesion regulates specific muscle protein breakdown systems to maintain healthy muscle, and found that the complex cell adhesion system is required for keeping muscle healthy.

We have reported that mitochondrial function controls calcium levels in muscle cells which, in turn increases the breakdown of extracellular matrix and causes reduced muscle health.

We have established a C. elegans model for understanding the causes of, and countermeasures to, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.

We found that muscle from older people displays distinct molecular differences from younger adults after lengthening (eccentric) and shortening (concentric) contractions.

We demonstrated that the muscle growth response to eating a protein meal is short-lived, despite the continued presence of molecular signals for muscle to grow.

We reported that large individual variability exists in muscle growth responses to exercise when breathing low oxygen air (hypoxia), whereby people that experience the biggest drop in blood oxygen levels during hypoxic exposure have the lowest growth responses.

We have shown that a breakdown product of the essential amino acid leucine stimulates muscle growth responses and influences muscle breakdown responses via independent molecular signals.

We demonstrated that spaceflight causes highly reproducible molecular changes in C. elegans, which are also seen in higher organisms including people. These molecular changes broadly relate to maintaining muscle structure and mitochondrial function (the part of our cells that produce most of our energy).

We developed an automated, remotely operated system that can culture C. elegans for 12 generations on the International Space Station, and that these animals display normal developmental timings and capacity for reproduction.

We found that fundamental cellular processes that regulate gene expression are unaltered across multiple C. elegans generations cultured in spaceflight.

We established that key growth factor signalling pathways are decreased during spaceflight, and that these can be restored by using centrifugation to mimic Earth's gravity.

News and media

Molecular Muscle Experiment logo: a cartoon worm in a spacesuit lifting weights with its tail

Our spaceflight research has attracted international media attention including coverage from several TV, radio and newspaper outlets. Google search ‘Molecular Muscle Experiment’ for more information.

News coverage

Our research in action

Find out how c. elegans research helps increase the speed of therapeutic discovery, and test the effectiveness of new drugs to benefit human muscle health. 

Our capabilities

In vivo work:

  • Human clinical metabolic trials of exercise and drug intervention efficacy.
  • High-throughput microfluidic lifespan and healthspan analysis in C. elegans.

In vitro work:

  • Tissue/cell culture, including primary human myogenic culture.

Analytical techniques:

  • Stable isotope tracer-based assessment of human metabolism.
  • Detailed assessment of mitochondrial function.
  • Transcriptomic, proteomic and metabolomic analysis of human muscle adaptation.
  • Bioinformatic network analysis.
  • Range of modern molecular biology techniques for quantifying molecular adaptation in humans and C. elegans.

Worm lab: 360-degree tour

Click and drag on the video to rotate the camera.

Group members

Dr Tim Etheridge Senior Lecturer
Dr Colleen Deane MRC Research Fellow
Dr Bridget Paling Postdoctoral researcher
Craig Willis BBSRC PhD student
Mike Cooke STFC/ UK Space Agency PhD student
Ryan Frankum PhD student
Emad Manni PhD student
Luke Slade PhD student


Follow us on Twitter