Scientists at The University of Nottingham believe that Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a microscopic worm which is biologically very similar to the human being, could help us understand how humans might cope with long-duration space exploration.
Their research, published on Wednesday 30 November 2011 in Interface, a journal of The Royal Society, has shown that in space the C. elegansdevelops 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 Space Shuttle Discovery. The researchers 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. 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 common goal.
"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."