Tiny Worms Could Hold Key To Living In Space
November 30, 2011

Tiny Worms Could Hold Key To Living In Space

Microscopic worms similar in biological makeup to human beings have returned from a successful space mission, proving for the first time that worms can survive in space.

Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a worm family that originated in a rubbish dump in Bristol, England, were sent into space to give researchers a better understanding of how humans can survive in space -- if ever comes the time when we have to flee our planet and start anew elsewhere in the heavens.

University of Nottingham researcher Dr. Nathaniel Szewczyk was behind the new mission, which marked the longest stretch that the worms have survived in space and have been recovered. He has been part of two previous missions that also had sent worms into space. The latest batch of worms were sent into space aboard the shuttle Discovery, and returned, 12 generations later -- in worm life --, according to Szewczyk´s paper, published in the Royal Society journal Interface.

Szewczyk´s research has shown that, in space, the worms develop from egg to adulthood and produce offspring just as they do on Earth. He said it is an ideal and cost-efficient experimental system to investigate the effects of long duration space travel.

Szewczyk, from the Division of Clinical Physiology in the School of Graduate Entry Medicine, launched 4,000 worms into space. He and his colleagues monitored the effects of low Earth orbit (LEO) on 12 generations of C. elegans during the first three months of their six month stay aboard the International Space Station (ISS). His research marks the first observations of C. elegans in LEO.

The research team studied the effects of weightlessness on the muscles of the worms. Because these multicellular organisms share many of the same genes as humans, they made great candidates.

The team established an automated setup for growing the worms in space by transferring a subset of the animals fresh food every month, filming their progress as they went along. The technique was dependent on establishing that worms fare just as well in liquid as they do on their usual agar plates.

“Because we had the bad experience with shuttle STS-107, which of course is the shuttle that broke up, we are keen [to] avoid being dependent on getting the worms back,” explained Szewczyk.

Even if these microscopic worms can prove that we as humans can survive in space, the ability to do so is no easy task. Humans need to first learn to cheaply and safely propel themselves into space regularly, and then, once there, must adapt to weightlessness and high levels of radiation.

Scientists have continued to study the ill effects weightlessness places on many astronauts, but have yet to come up with a sustainable solution.

Gravity studies have mostly focused on a group of muscles -- known as anti-gravity muscles -- that seem to deteriorate without the gravitational pull of Earth. However, there is some evidence for the weakening in all muscles, including the hearts of astronauts.

Weightlessness not only sees animals use their muscles less, but causes changes in the chemical reactions within the muscle cells, explained Szewczyk.

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 very obvious human counterparts.

“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,” said Szewczyk.

“A fair number of scientists agree that we could colonize 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,” he added.

This latest mission was Szewczyk´s third space-worm mission. He and his team collaborated with experts at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado and the Simon Fraser University in Canada, to develop the compact automated culturing system for the mission.

Szewczyk´s space-worm missions have established that his team are not only capable of sending worms to other planets but also capable of experimenting on them on the way there and once they are there. More results are set to be published shortly.


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