Space explorers and science fiction authors have long dreamed of space colonization, of the day when the human species will inhabit distant planets. Habitable planets, however, lie beyond the roughly 1,200-mile-boundary of low Earth orbit (LEO), which humans have not flown past since the final Apollo mission in December 1972. Indeed, beyond-LEO travel is fraught with technological and logistical issues. And it poses significant challenges to human survival—problems that researchers are now addressing through studies in space with the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, an organism that shares 40 to 50 percent genetic similarity with humans and hence offers insight into potential impacts of distant space travel on human physiology.
In a recent paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, scientists from the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada described an automated, remotely monitored culture system for growing C. elegans during long-duration LEO spaceflight. The scientists successfully tested the system in a six-month-long trial aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and now say that the automated system is ready for deployment on unmanned missions beyond LEO, to other planets, such as Mars.
The worms lived in specialized culture cells connected by peristaltic pumps and filled with a liquid medium that supported their survival. For launch and flight to the ISS, the worms were maintained in a growth-arrested state, which helped them resist stress. Once aboard the space station, they were revived through feeding and began to grow and reproduce. Their growth, reproduction, and movement in response to long-duration spaceflight were monitored and analyzed from a laboratory on Earth via remote uplink to cameras mounted on the culture cells. Hence, there was never any need for humans aboard the ISS to handle the cells.
The scientists observed C. elegans for 12 generations in space and compared their findings with their observations of Earth-bound worms, which served as controls. The comparisons revealed that long-duration flight aboard the ISS had no effect on worm development. In addition, when fully fed, space C. elegans demonstrated rates of movement comparable to their Earth counterparts, and when deprived of food, both populations showed similar declines in movement, which recovered to normal after feeding. The experiments demonstrated not only that C. elegans could serve as a biological model in long-duration spaceflight but also that a biological species could reproduce and grow normally under spaceflight conditions.
Unmanned missions using space worms as biological models offer key advantages to understanding the effects of long-duration, beyond-LEO travel on living organisms. For example, it is far less expensive and much safer to send worms into space instead of humans. In addition, the success of the liquid life-support system designed for C. elegans may help scientists conceive of new ideas for mechanisms of human life support and radiation shielding technologies, which will be required for space colonization. Radiation in space, in fact, is a significant threat to human health and survival.
While space colonization likely remains a long way off, the need to escape from Earth in the future may be real, and it may be approaching more rapidly than we suspect. As the world population grows and resources become scarce, and with another ice age possibly looming a few millennia ahead, the future of our species could someday depend on the human colonization of other planets.
Kara Rogers is a freelance science writer and senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and author of Science Up Front on the Britannica Blog. She holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology/Toxicology, but enjoys reading and writing about all things science. You can follow her on Twitter at @karaerogers.
This post also appears on the Britannica Blog.