Dr Kai Hoettges speaks about the University of Liverpool’s MicroAge experiment on Granada news

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Dr Kai Hoettges from the Department of Electrical Engineering spoke to Granada reports, about the University of Liverpool’s MicroAge experiment, which was launched in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on 21st December. 

Supported by the UK Space Agency, the project is using space to understand what happens to human muscles as we age, and why.

When astronauts spend time in space their muscles get weaker, just as they do in older age, before recovering when they return to Earth. By studying what happens to muscle tissue in microgravity, the team can compare the findings to what happens on Earth. This will help the solve the puzzle of why muscles get weaker as we age and look at ways to prevent it.

MicroAge has taken human muscle cells, the size of a grain of rice, that are grown in a lab and carefully put them into small 3D-printed holders the size of a pencil sharpener. Once on board the International Space Station these will be electrically stimulated to induce contractions in the muscle tissue, and the scientists will look closely to see what happens.

Many of the Liverpool team had been out in Florida preparing for the launch, and were able to watch it take place live from Space View Park.

The Granada news item saw the launch of the rocket and then speaking from Liverpool, Dr Hoettges was interviewed about the project, and the idea of ‘unlocking the secret of aging’.

 MicroAge project on Granada news

Dr Hoettges was asked what scientists hope to learn from this mission, and he summarised,

"Our main interest is that we are comparing what happens with muscle loss in astronauts. Most people know that if astronauts go up to the International Space station they lose a lot of muscle mass over time, so their muscles weaken quite considerably.

Even though these astronauts actually do a lot of exercise. Nowadays the astronauts are expected to do around two hours of exercise a day. It doesn’t seem to be only the effect of needing less muscle in space, they are still weakening if they do exercise. In old age, as we get more frail, even if we keep on exercising we do not build the same amount of muscle. So there are some really interesting parallels between astronauts and elderly people , so we are trying to work on working out what these things have in common. Ageing studies on Earth can be really difficult because we get frail over a period of many many years, so if it happens much quicker in space, but we have similar biology then we have got a very interesting model to study that, and learn new science in a very compressed timeframe."

When asked how exciting this project is for Liverpool, and what is Liverpool’s role in it, Dr Hoettges responded,

"Well for us it is really exciting, it is our first one we are getting up there, so we are relatively new at that. Our role is developing the science. So we came up with the science of comparing aging and microgravity and we have developed the tissue culture model for that so we are sending up little artificial muscles that are based on human cells. We developed also a lot of the monitoring technology around that, so when they’re up there in space some of our muscles get exercised, so we’re stimulating so they’re contracting. We keep a controlled group that doesn’t so we develop the technology to do the stimulation and also some new technologies to actually monitor that these cells are happy up there in space. Of course in a normal lab we would have opportunities to look with a microscope how these cells are doing and check them on a daily basis. Up in space they’re sitting in a small cartridge that doesn’t get opened while it’s up there so nobody sees what’s happening so we developed some new monitoring techniques to use electrical signals to probe if these muscles are still behaving well, if they’re contracting well while they’re up in space."

Dr Hoettges being interviewed on Granada news

The whole interview can be watched back here for a limited time.


People can keep up to date with the progress of the study through a MicroAge App with timely updates and links to helpful information, podcasts, activity packs and information on healthy ageing, exercise and more.

Download the official MicroAge App (Apple and android)