30 November 2011
New research published in Interface, a journal of the Royal Society, suggests that Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a microscopic nematode worm, could help us understand how humans might cope with long-duration space exploration.
In December 2006 scientists based at the University of Nottingham blasted 4,000 C. elegans into space onboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and were able to successfully monitor the effect of low Earth orbit on 12 generations of the worm.
Lead author Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk said: “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.”
The research establishes 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 once there. The humble nematode C. elegans has already been used on Earth to help us understand human biology – and now it could help us investigate living on Mars.
Read the full paper for free here.