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A worm family that originated in a rubbish dump in Bristol has successfully returned from a space mission, proving for the first time that worms can survive untended in space.

Studying the effect of space travel on worms has big implications for understanding how humans can survive in space – if and when we have to flee our planet and set up colonies in distant worlds.

Nottingham university researcher Dr Nathaniel Szewczyk has been a part of boffinry teams that have sent worms into space twice before, but this latest mission marks the longest stretch that the microscopic Caenorhabditis elegans worms have survived in space and been recovered. A group of boffins led by Szewczyk sent up the latest batch of space worms with the space shuttle Discovery. The worms have now returned, 12 generations later, records their paper, published today in Interface, a journal of the Royal Society.

The self-sustaining wormery used a liquid rather than an agar to support the worms and was developed with teams at the Universities of Pittsburgh, Colorado and the Simon Fraser University in Canada. The automated set-up transferred a subset of worms to fresh food every month. The worms were filmed and monitored remotely to observe the effect of environmental toxins, in-flight radiation and the lack of gravity on their muscles.

And biologically, we humans have a lot in common with our fellow earthlings. C elegans was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genetic structure completely mapped and many of its 20,000 genes perform the same functions as those in humans. Two thousand of these genes have a role in promoting muscle function and 50 to 60 per cent of these have very obvious human counterparts.

Dr Szewczyk said:

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.

It opens the door to worms being sent out on unmanned missions and lets us test out the biological effects of space travel in a relatively cheap way he added.

But won't we be sorry when we finally get to Mars and discover that the worms have taken over? ®

Remote automated multi-generational growth and observation of an animal in low Earth orbit was published on 30 November in Interface, a journal of the Royal Society, and authored by Nathaniel Szewczyk with co-authors Elizabeth Oczypok1, Timothy Etheridge, Jacob Freeman, Louis Stodieck, Robert Johnsen and David Baillie.

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