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Worm grows second head after visit to space

After spending more than a month aboard the International Space Station, one partially amputated flatworm came back to Earth with a bizarre new talent.

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This worm went to space to find itself. It liked what it found enough to make a copy.

Junji Morokuma/Tufts University

There are lots of strange things to discover in space, but flatworms sent to the International Space Station saved the really weird stuff for when they returned to Earth. 

That's when one worm, which had been partially amputated before being launched into space aboard a SpaceX rocket in 2015, grew a second head.

Planarian flatworms are often used in biological studies because of their impressive ability to regenerate parts of their bodies after amputation. A set including both whole and amputated worms was sent to the ISS for a five-week stay and then evaluated back on Earth for an additional 20 months. 

One of the space-flown worms regenerated into a rare double-headed specimen. That's something the researchers running the experiment from Tufts University say they'd never seen in their combined 18 years of maintaining a colony of more than 15,000 flatworms. 

But that's just the beginning of the strangeness. When the researchers amputated both of the heads from the newly twin-headed worm, the headless middle section grew back two heads. In other words, something that happened after the worm was launched into space caused its body to be "reprogrammed" to consider itself to be some sort of new two-headed species.

The worms that left Earth whole also did odd things, including spontaneously splitting into two or more unique individuals. The scientists note, however, this could be a result of the different temperatures experienced by the worms during their space journey. 

A study detailing the worms' long, strange trip will appear Tuesday in the journal Regeneration

The experiment actually isn't about using space to quickly double production in the fishing-bait industry. Rather, it could be helpful for the future of long-term space travel.

"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," said Junji Morokuma, lead author of the study, in a statement.

No one is saying two-headed astronauts are a good idea just yet, but it sure would make it easy to pilot the ship in shifts on those long, long trips to Mars.

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