space worm
The microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Image: danielmorgan/Flickr/CC BY-SA

Microscopic worms known as Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short, have just returned from a long space voyage. The worms, which are biologically similar to human beings, could provide great insight into the effects of long-term space travel on human beings.

Worms in space

The mission was the brainchild of Dr. Nathaniel Szewczyk, a researcher at England’s University of Nottingham. The approximately 4,000 worms originated in a garbage dump in Bristol, England. They were sent to the International Space Station about six months ago on the space shuttle Discovery and haveĀ  recently returned. Twelve worm-generations have elapsed since then, proving that the worms can thrive in outer space. Szewczyk published his findings in the Royal Society journal Interface.

Key to interplanetary colonization

Szewczyk believes that interplanetary colonization is the key to long term human survival. He believes these worms are instrumental in moving in that direction.

Szewczyk said in a statement:

“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… 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.”

Twelve worm-generations

Twelve generations of the worms is about three months to us. The worms spent six months on the space station, where the scientist were able to monitor their progress for the first half of that time.

First multi-cellular DNA map

Among the challenges of living in space are muscle deterioration, exposure to radiation and the loss of bone density. The worms have provided promising insight into all these areas. The C. elegans worm was the first multi-cellular creature to have its DNA completely mapped. Genetically, they have many direct parallels to humans. They have long been used in research as a human biological substitute.

Ant-gravity muscles

A group of muscles often referred to as the anti-gravity muscles seem to deteriorate in zero gravity. The muscles of the worms did become less active in space, but were as active as normal during feeding. This points to the idea that the worms used their muscles less only because of the lack of need to work against gravity and not because of any physical deterioration.


Red Orbit:

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