Microscopic worms could lead mankind’s way to Mars

Scientists believe that Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a microscopic worm, which is biologically very similar to human beings, could help us understand how to cope with long-duration space exploration.

The research conducted at the University of Nottingham, has shown that in space the worm develops from egg to adulthood and produces progeny just as it does on earth, which makes it an ideal and cost-effective experimental system to investigate the effects of long duration and distance space exploration.

A team of scientists led by Nathaniel Szewczyk from the Division of Clinical Physiology in the School of Graduate Entry Medicine, blasted 4,000 microscopic into space onboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

They were able to successfully monitor the effect of low Earth orbit (LEO) on 12 generations of C. elegans during the first three months of their six-month voyage 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,” 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.

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“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,” he said.

The C. elegans has been used on Earth to help us understand human biology, and 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.

“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,” he added.

The study has been recently published in the journal of The Royal Society.

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