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Microscopic Worms May Help to Colonize Mars

A Caenorhabditis elegans worm. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once the realm of science fiction, the prospect of colonizing other planets is getting closer to reality. The most logical first place, besides the Moon, has always been Mars. Venus is a bit closer, but the scorching conditions there are, well, much less than ideal. There is still technology that needs to be developed before we can send humans to Mars at all, never mind stay there permanently. But now there may be help from an unlikely and lowly companion. – worms.

Ok, not the kind of worms you find in your garden, but tiny microscopic worms called Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans). Similar biologically to humans in some ways, they are being studied by scientists at the University of Nottingham in the UK to help see how people are affected by long-duration space travel.

In December 2006, 4,000 of them were sent into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. This was followed by another mission in 2009. The scientists found that in space, the worms develop and produce progeny just as they do on Earth. The research has been published in the November 30, 2011 issue of Interface, a journal of The Royal Society.

According to Dr. Nathaniel Szewczyk of the Division of Clinical Physiology in the School of Graduate Entry Medicine, “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.”

He added: “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.”

So while a manned space mission to Mars is still a ways off, some lucky worms may get there first, making the voyage of a lifetime, even if they don’t realize it!

About 

Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy and has been a long-time member of The Planetary Society. He currently writes for Universe Today and Examiner.com. His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Susan Ritta December 1, 2011, 4:22 AM

    Very cool! Though, now I’m just waiting for PETA to get wind of this and throw a hissy-fit…

    • magnus.nyborg December 1, 2011, 7:23 AM

      Maybe we can send PETA along as a double blind.

    • magnus.nyborg December 1, 2011, 7:23 AM

      Maybe we can send PETA along as a double blind.

    • Anonymous December 1, 2011, 10:28 AM

      Animal rights only applies to cute animals.

    • Anonymous December 1, 2011, 10:28 AM

      Animal rights only applies to cute animals.

  • Susan Ritta December 1, 2011, 4:22 AM

    Very cool! Though, now I’m just waiting for PETA to get wind of this and throw a hissy-fit…

  • Gore Gogore December 1, 2011, 5:44 AM

    because of the radiations the worms will mutate and grow enormous, giving us the real “Dune” habitat . NASA is already hiring horse riders to train them for pilots.

  • HeadAroundU December 1, 2011, 11:13 AM

    That’d be one small step for a worm, one giant leap for wormkind.

  • HeadAroundU December 1, 2011, 11:13 AM

    That’d be one small step for a worm, one giant leap for wormkind.

  • Jonathan Ham December 1, 2011, 12:14 PM

    Ah, C. elegans. One of my favorite critters to play God with during undergrad. Although I did not enjoy dissecting them. The buggers are usually 1mm or less long.

  • Jonathan Ham December 1, 2011, 12:14 PM

    Ah, C. elegans. One of my favorite critters to play God with during undergrad. Although I did not enjoy dissecting them. The buggers are usually 1mm or less long.

  • Torbjörn Larsson December 1, 2011, 2:00 PM

    worms can grow and reproduce in space

    Uh-oh! C. elegans are sexual reproducers. Plants can sense and somewhat adjust to living in space, but apparently no such luck with temporarily closing down animal fertility from such stresses.

    A ~ 9 month Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars is just about too long to avoid troubles with future colonists and much of their animal cargo.

  • Torbjörn Larsson December 1, 2011, 2:00 PM

    worms can grow and reproduce in space

    Uh-oh! C. elegans are sexual reproducers. Plants can sense and somewhat adjust to living in space, but apparently no such luck with temporarily closing down animal fertility from such stresses.

    A ~ 9 month Hohmann transfer orbit to Mars is just about too long to avoid troubles with future colonists and much of their animal cargo.

  • Anonymous December 1, 2011, 5:35 PM

    This is actually the sort of thing that I am rather opposed to. Intentionally introducing life forms onto other planets is just another form of our introducing invasive species in different geographic localities here on Earth. For one thing, we would need to make sure that Mars is absolutely dead before doing this. Otherwise we would be contaminating scientific research on ET-lifeforms.

    If one were to engage in these activities I think the first thing to do would be to build up soils. This requires bacteria and fungis. As one builds up soil ecosystems one would then introduce mites and C-elegans.

    LC

    • Anonymous December 1, 2011, 6:27 PM

      It says nothing about introducing them to the martian environment, furthermore they probably couldn’t survive in martian conditions, further-furthermore I think we have pretty conclusively proved that any life on mars is probably now a fossil.

      • Anonymous December 2, 2011, 4:24 AM

        There could be life in liquid that is subsurface, such as what has been found to be flowing out from crater walls.

        LC

    • Torbjörn Larsson December 2, 2011, 3:49 AM

      It would be unlikely that any introduced prokaryotes wouldn’t survive in a competition with already existing adapted life.

      Maybe multicellulars would have a niche assuming there aren’t any extant on Mars- But I don’t think it is likely multicellular eukaryotes would survive without plenty of oxygen, the reason we think there are no multicellulars in the first place. Unless they have hydrogenosomes to live off hydrogen sources like volcanism or some radioactive minerals and those species are relatively few. C. elegans is not one of them.

      If introduced life survives however unlikely it is, as for contamination it could be an issue with particular instruments on the probe making the introduction. But it would take some time before introduced life would be noticeable against the background organics (or late fossils), if any.

      So far the problem has been to observe any organics at all, despite many introduced free rider bacterias in, on and around (chutes) the existing non-sterile probes. Perhaps Viking was sterile. The others haven’t been, just extremely sanitized.

      As for the moral side of terraforming a planet with an already existing biosphere, morals is generally a set of interspecies specific traits.

      We have started to extend those towards pets and others in an “extended family”. But we could easily do terraforming of Mars without messing with peoples moral behavior.

      • Anonymous December 2, 2011, 4:27 AM

        Of course if Mars does have a microbial ecosystem it would be madness to terriform the planet. This might see a reverse of HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”

        Clearly if we were to terriform Mars we would need to probably first increase the atmospheric pressure. That is a bit harder than inflating tire pressure. We might have to increase solar radiation there by deflecting light to Mars with giant mirrors. Then to start we would have to use the most basic prokaryotes and build up from there. It would take a long time, many centuries I should think.

        Frankly, I doubt it will ever be done.

        LC

        • squidgeny December 2, 2011, 2:00 PM

          I also doubt we’ll ever terraform Mars but I don’t see an existing ecosystem as a problem. Mars as it currently exists doesn’t give much opportunity for the development of anything more complicated than a single cell – the planet would stay microbial until it is seared clean by the expanding sun. Might as well move in now and give an extra planet to the multicellular life brigade.

          Of course, wiping out the native life would present an unimaginable loss to science. We’d have to be careful to scour the entire planet, catalogue every single species we find in as much detail as possible, and build sanctuaries so nothing ever truly goes extinct.

          • Anonymous December 2, 2011, 3:20 PM

            The introduction of Earth life onto Mars would demolish scientific research for searching out life on Mars. As I see it Mars if the best candidate for extraterrestrial life.

            If there is life on Mars it would behoove us not to cross fertilize life forms by either importing Earth life to Mars or Martian life to Earth. The prospects for unexpected consequences are very rich.

            If humanity does colonize space, which is itself a dubious proposition, I think the frontier will involve asteroids and fabricating habitable systems on them.

            LC

        • Torbjörn Larsson December 2, 2011, 4:56 PM

          Agreed.

  • Anonymous December 1, 2011, 10:22 PM

    Technically, they are under phylum of nematoda, and most are cannibalistic and/or parasites. ones like Panagrellus redivivus, have been studied from mutations under radiation. Their selection, not mentioned in this article, is their resistance to radiation damage.

  • Anonymous December 2, 2011, 5:29 AM

    Short story subject: Mankind finally reaches Mars. At first it appears there is no life but then, deep in a lava tube, explorers find wet environmental niches filled with cockroaches…. ACK!

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