Researchers from the University of Nottingham have found that a microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which is biologically very similar to the human being, could help understand how humans might cope with long-duration space exploration, stated in a press release from the university.
Their research, published in journal Interface, has shown that in space the C. elegans develops 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 space exploration.
In 2006 a team of scientists led by Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk was able to successfully monitor the effect of low Earth orbit on 12 generations of C. elegans onboard the International Space Station.
“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.
“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 C. elegans has been used on Earth to help us understand human biology — now it could help us investigate living on Mars.
Dr Szewczyk and his team collaborated with experts at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Colorado and the Simon Fraser University in Canada, to develop a compact automated C. elegans culturing system which can be monitored remotely to observe the effect of environmental toxins and in-flight radiation.
“Worms allow us to detect changes in growth, development, reproduction and behaviour 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 Dr Szewczyk.