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Will worms in space lead to life on Mars?

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — A microscopic worm may offer clues to how humans will cope with long-term space exploration.

New research shows that in space, C. elegans develop from egg to adulthood and produces progeny exactly how they do on earth, making the worms an ideal and cost-effective experimental system to investigate the effects of long-duration space travel.

In December 2006, 4,000 C. elegans were blasted into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. Researchers were able to successfully monitor the effect of low Earth orbit (LEO) on 12 generations of C. elegans during the first three months of the six-month voyage to the International Space Station. These are the first observations of C. elegans behavior in LEO.

This image shows post-flight recovered worms. (Credit: Nathaniel Szewczyk)


“A fair number of scientists agree that we could colonize other planets,” says Nathaniel Szewczyk from the division of clinical physiology at the University of Nottingham.

“While this sounds like science fiction, it is a fact that if mankind wants to avoid the natural order of extinction then we need to find ways to live on other planets. Thankfully most of the world’s space agencies are committed to this common goal.”

The research is published in the journal Interface.

“While it may seem surprising, many of the biological changes that happen during spaceflight affect astronauts and worms and in the same way. We have been able to show that worms can grow and reproduce in space for long enough to reach another planet and that we can remotely monitor their health.

“As a result C. elegans is a cost effective option for discovering and studying the biological effects of deep space missions. Ultimately, we are now in a position to be able to remotely grow and study an animal on another planet.”

Many experts believe the ultimate survival of humanity is dependent upon colonization of other planetary bodies. But there are key challenges associated with long-term space exploration—most notably radiation exposure and musculoskeletal deterioration.

C. elegans was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genetic structure completely mapped and many of its 20,000 genes perform the same functions as those in humans. Two thousand of these genes have a role in promoting muscle function and 50 to 60 percent of these have obvious human counterparts.

Szewczyk is no stranger to space flight—this is his third space-worm mission. Szewczyk and his team at Nottingham collaborated with experts at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Simon Fraser University in Canada, to develop a compact automated C. elegans culturing system that can be monitored remotely to observe the effect of environmental toxins and in-flight radiation.

“Worms allow us to detect changes in growth, development, reproduction, and behavior in response to environmental conditions such as toxins or in response to deep space missions. Given the high failure rate of Mars missions, use of worms allows us to safely and relatively cheaply test spacecraft systems prior to manned missions.”

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