Microfluidics-integrated spaceflight hardware for measuring muscle strength of Caenorhabditis elegans on the International Space Station

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Caenorhabditis elegans is a low-cost genetic model that has been flown to the International Space Station to investigate the influence of microgravity on changes in the expression of genes involved in muscle maintenance. These studies showed that genes that encode muscle attachment complexes have decreased expression under microgravity. However, it remains to be answered whether the decreased expression leads to concomitant changes in animal muscle strength, specifically across multiple generations. We recently reported the NemaFlex microfluidic device for the measurement of muscle strength of C. elegans (Rahman et al., Lab Chip, 2018). In this study, we redesign our original NemaFlex device and integrate it with flow control hardware for spaceflight investigations considering mixed animal culture, constraints on astronaut time, crew safety, and on-orbit operations. The technical advances we have made include (i) a microfluidic device design that allows animals of a given size to be sorted from unsynchronized cultures and housed in individual chambers, (ii) a fluid handling protocol for injecting the suspension of animals into the microfluidic device that prevents channel clogging, introduction of bubbles, and crowding of animals in the chambers, and (iii) a custom-built worm-loading apparatus interfaced with the microfluidic device that allows easy manipulation of the worm suspension and prevents fluid leakage into the surrounding environment. Collectively, these technical advances enabled the development of new microfluidics-integrated hardware for spaceflight studies in C. elegans. Finally, we report Earth-based validation studies to test this new hardware, which has led to it being flown to the International Space Station.