Caenorhabditis elegans is a a less-than-one-millimeter-long nematode that matures and dutifully produces its next generation in space the same way it does on earth. C. elegans' biology shares certain important commonalities with that of humans. Therefore, University of Nottingham researchers are arguing that these roundworms should be used to model the effects of long stays in space on humans.
In repeated experiments, Nottingham researchers found that C. elegans manages to execute all its basic life functions in space. The roundworms, which are small enough to comfortably establish a thriving community in a petri dish, managed to produce twelve generations, all while sitting in low orbit on the International Space Station.
This is significant because C. elegans has long been a model for human biology. True, they were never a good model for spinal cord experiments, but certain biological functions mirror those in humans. These nematodes show signs of aging, which allows us to understand how certain conditions affect humans as they age. About 35% of their genes are similar to human genes. They're no chimpanzees, but it's a lot for a nematode. Additionally, C. elegans are hermaphroditic and often fertilize themselves. This process allows recessive genes to come to the fore, which helps scientists study their effects quickly and without genetic engineering.
In an upcoming paper in Interface, the researchers argue that C. Elegans are the most viable way to test the effects of long space travel or off-earth colonization. Twelve generations in worm-years indicates that people may be able — with the right support and equipment — get by for hundreds of years in space, giving us plenty of time to get to another planet in the solar system or even travel to an exoplanet.
The fact that the worms kept living means that wherever we go, they'll probably already be there. We can send them to various planets and orbital habitats to see if they survive for generations. They're the canary in the coal mine...and that coal mine is in space.