Worms could hold key to human survival in space

Posted by Kate Taylor

A colony of tiny worms originally dug up from a city garbage dump has survived a stint in space, in research aimed at helping discover how the human body might cope with a trip to another planet.

Caenorhabditis elegans (C elegans) is a microscopic worm that's biologically very similar to human beings. And, says the University of Nottingham team, it develops from egg to adulthood and produces progeny in space, 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, says the team.

The 4,000 worms blasted off for the ISS in December 2006, and were recently brought back by the shuttle Discovery. The researchers have now been able to analyze monitor the effects of low Earth orbit (LEO) on 12 generations of the worms.

"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," says Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk.

"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, he says, C. elegans is a cost-effective way of discovering and studying the biological effects of deep space missions - believed to include possible radiation damage and  musculoskeletal deterioration from lack of gravity.

"Ultimately, we are now in a position to be able to remotely grow and study an animal on another planet," he says."

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 per cent of these have very obvious human counterparts.