Worms help us study living in space
Scientists sent off 4,000 Caenorhabditis elegans, a species of microscopic roundworm, to the International Space Station and studied how they cope with life in low Earth orbit for six months.
Researchers said observations over 12 generations of the worms showed normal development, movement, feeding patterns and reproduction capacity among the worms.
“These observations establish C. elegans as a biological model that can be used to detect changes in animal growth, development, reproduction and behaviour in response to environmental conditions during long-duration spaceflight,” the scientists stated.
Studying living in space
The researchers developed a compact automated culturing system for the worms which could be monitored remotely. The apparatus kept them fed, recorded effects of environmental toxins and in-flight radiation and filmed the worms' progress.
The researchers chose Caenorhabditis elegans for the study because the worm shares many genes with humans, and can thus help gauge the impacts of deep spaceflight on us. The major concerns with survival in space are the effects of weightlessness and high radiation levels.
“While it may seem surprising, many of the biological changes that happen during spaceflight affect astronauts and worms, and in the same way,” lead author of the study, Nathaniel Szewczyk, of the University of Nottingham, said.
Szewczyk added, “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.”
Mission to Mars?
The next step would be to send out the worms beyond Earth's orbit, may be even to Mars.
Szewczyk said, “While this sounds like science fiction, a fair number of scientists agree that we could colonize other planets, and will one day need to if mankind wants to avoid extinction.
“Given the high cost of manned space missions and high failure rate for Mars missions we suggest that these worms as a cheap model to test some of the biological effects of long-distance space travel.”
“Ultimately, we are now in a position to be able to remotely grow and study an animal on another planet,” the scientist added.
The study is published in Interface, a journal of The Royal Society.