Microscopic worms could hold the key to living life on Mars

Nov 30, 2011

The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking believes that if humanity is to survive we will have to pull up sticks and colonise space. But is the human body up to the challenge?

Scientists at The University of Nottingham believe that Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a which is biologically very similar to the human being, could help us understand how humans might cope with long-duration exploration.

Their research, published on Wednesday 30 November 2011 in Interface, a journal of The Royal Society, 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 long duration and distance space exploration.

In December 2006 a team of scientists led by Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk from the Division of Clinical Physiology in the School of Graduate Entry Medicine blasted 4,000 C. elegans into space onboard the . The researchers were able to successfully monitor the effect of (LEO) on 12 generations of C. elegans during the first three months of their six month voyage onboard the . These are the first observations of C. elegans behaviour in LEO.

Dr Szewczyk said: "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 .

"While it may seem surprising, many of the that happen during spaceflight affect 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."

Many experts believe the ultimate survival of humanity is dependent upon colonisation of other planetary bodies. But we face key challenges associated with long term . Radiation exposure and musculoskeletal deterioration are thought to be two of the key obstacles to successful habitation beyond LEO.

The C. elegans has been used on Earth to help us understand human biology – now it could help us investigate living on Mars.

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.

Dr Szewczyk is no stranger to space flight – this was his third space-worm mission. Dr Szewczyk and his team at Nottingham 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.

Dr Szewczyk said: "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."

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.

Explore further: Computer model shows moon's core surrounded by liquid and it's caused by Earth's gravity

Related Stories

Space mission for worms

Jan 15, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Worms from The University of Nottingham should be checking in for a flight onboard the Space Shuttle later this year — to help researchers investigate the effect of zero gravity on the body's muscle development ...

Microscopic worms could help open up travel into deep space

Jun 02, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- A space flight by millions of microscopic worms could help us overcome the numerous threats posed to human health by space travel. The Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) have also given experts an insight ...

Recommended for you

Titan offers clues to atmospheres of hazy planets

4 hours ago

When hazy planets pass across the face of their star, a curious thing happens. Astronomers are not able to see any changes in the range of light coming from the star and planet system.

Having fun with the equation of time

4 hours ago

If you're like us, you might've looked at a globe of the Earth in elementary school long before the days of Google Earth and wondered just what that strange looking figure eight thing on its side was.

The source of the sky's X-ray glow

23 hours ago

In findings that help astrophysicists understand our corner of the galaxy, an international research team has shown that the soft X-ray glow blanketing the sky comes from both inside and outside the solar system.

User comments : 0