Microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans may hold clues to the human colonization of space, according to scientists at The University of Nottingham. Research published by the university today indicates that C. elegans can reach maturity from egghood and successfully reproduce in space, just as it does on Earth. Now the worm is a prime candidate to form an advance party to Mars in order to examine the effects of long-distance space travel on earthly organisms.
The experiment began in 2006 when the Space Shuttle Discovery transported a population of 4,000 C. elegans to the International Space Station where, over three months, twelve generations of the nematodes successfully reproduced in low Earth orbit, their well-being remotely monitored by Dr. Nathaniel Szewczyk and his team.
"While it may seem surprising," Dr. Szewczyk said in a statement today, "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."
Since the 1970s, Caenorhabditis elegans has been studied as a model organism - one in which biological processes can be tested in order to understand similar processes in other species. In 1998 it became the first multicellular organism to have its entire genome sequenced. This found that 2,000 of its 20,000 genes pertain to muscle function, and it's understood that 50 to 60 percent of these have counterparts in humans. These characteristics (in addition to its size, of course), make C. elegans the perfect subject for Dr. Szewczyk's research.
This is not the first research into nematode worms in space. Dr. Szewczyk has been involved in three other space missions, including one in 2009, which indicated that C. elegans' RNAi remains effective during Spaceflight. However, following the findings published today, Dr. Szewczyk is convinced that it is now time to send worms to Mars.
"A fair number of scientists agree that we could colonize other planets," Dr. Szewczyk added. "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."