Lifestyle & Belief

Worms may hold key to human survival in space


The International Space Station is seen from the space shuttle Discovery as the two orbital spacecraft accomplish their relative separation after an aggregate of 12 astronauts and cosmonauts worked together for over a week during flight day 12 activities March 7, 2011 in Space.



A colony of 4000 worms that lived and reproduced happily on the International Space Station is helping scientists determine humankind's future in space, the BBC reports.

The worms, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. Elegans), returned to Earth in March on the space shuttle Discovery after almost five years at the International Space Station.

Their experience is helping scientists understand effects of weightlessness and radiation in space – and therefore how humans might cope with long-duration space exploration.

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A team of researchers at the University of Nottingham, led by Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk, were able to monitor the effect of low Earth orbit on 12 generations of C. Elegans.

In research published on Wednesday in Interface, a journal of The Royal Society, the team found that C. Elegans develops from egg to adulthood and produces progeny in space, just as it does on earth, the online Science Daily reported.

Years ago astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said that humanity must colonize space if it is to survive and, according to Dr Szewczyk, the human body may well be up to the challenge:

"A fair number of scientists agree that we could colonies 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. 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."

Dr Szewczyk said the survival of the worms shows that they grow and reproduce in space for long enough to reach another planet.

Plus, many of the biological changes that happen during spaceflight affect astronauts and worms and in the same way, including musculoskeletal deterioration from lack of gravity.

The gravity studies focused on a group of “anti-gravity muscles” that seem to deteriorate without the gravitational pull of the Earth, the BBC reported.

C. elegans was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genetic structure mapped. The study showed that around 2000 of of its genes play a role in promoting muscle function – and 50 to 60 percent of these have obvious human counterparts, Reuters reported.

It is understood that more results of the study, including a mechanism allowing muscles to repair themselves, are also due to be published.