A team of scientists say that an experiment involving worms in space may show that humans stand a chance of surviving long-term in space.
The result, published in a Royal Society journal, find that worm colonies can be established on space stations without the need for researchers to tend to them. The discovery may eventually allow humans to colonize nearby planets, including Mars.
The team of scientists, led by Nathaniel Szewczyk from Notthingham University, sent 4,000 of the worms, known as known as Caenorhabditis elegans, into space on board the Space Shuttle Discovery, studying their progression.
Their research finds that in space the worms develop from egg to adulthood and produces progeny just as it does on earth. This makes it an ideal and cost-effective experimental system to investigate the effects of long duration and distance space exploration.
Researchers noted that studying the effects of space on the worms could shed light on some of the challenges humans will have to overcome to become a multiplanetary species. Those challenges include the muscular deterioration and radiation exposure associated with long-duration spaceflight.
“A fair number of scientists agree that we could colonise other planets. 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,” said Dr. Szewczyk.
In a statement released Tuesday, Bob Johnsen of Simon Fraser University said the microscopic worms went through 12 generations on board the International Space Station, where they continued to reproduce as if they had never left earth.
“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,” said Dr. Johnsen.
Szewczyk noted that the cost of transporting the worms to the International Space Station made them an attractive species to study, adding that they represent the first step towards examining how larger animals respond to weightlessness in space.
“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,” he said.
The discover comes as NASA is currently engaged in a mission to Mars that is seeking to identify organic compounds on the surface of the Red Planet, which scientists say would serve as an indicator that life may have once existed on the planet.
“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,” Szewczyk said, referencing the possibility that humans may one day have the ability to populate another planet.
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. The scientists also note that 2,000 of those genes have a role in promoting muscle functional and that as much as 60 percent of those 2,000 genes have counterparts in humans that are obvious. Space travel in zero-gravity condition can cause muscles to waste in astronauts, as it reportedly reduces the level of protein myosin which keeps humans muscles working.
The 2006 space mission, which led to this latest research, was followed up with a fourth mission in November 2009. Some of the results of the 2009 mission were published earlier this year in the journal PLoS ONE.
Together these two missions have established that the team are not only in a position to send worms to other planets but also to experiment on them on the way there and/or once there. More results, including a mechanism by which muscles can repair themselves are due to be published shortly.
The origins of Dr Szewczyk’s worms can be traced back to a rubbish dump in Bristol. C. elegans often feed on bacteria that develop on decaying vegetable matter.