Doing the Worm in Outer Space

Teeny tiny worms are helping us make the next giant leap for mankind.

Nov 5 2015, 12:00am

This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.

"Space worms" are not the stars of a midnight creature feature playing to a crowd of rowdy nerds. They are, however, at the center of ongoing research that could help shape the future of manned space travel. The roundworms in question— Caenorhabditis elegans—are microscopic residents of our earthly soil. Each one consists of around 1,000 cells, enough to live a pretty fulfilling nematode life of eating even littler things, reproducing (with another worm or by themselves, no biggie), and wiggling vigorously under microscopes.

If it's not obvious how these tiny dirt dwellers are relevant to 37-trillion-celled space geniuses like us, look to the worm's DNA. In 1998, C. elegans was the first multicellular organism to have its genome sequenced completely, making its 20,000 genes (humans have 21,000) a great way to study what happens to cells when they're exposed to the radiation, low gravity, and other weirdness of outer space.

The latest of these experiments occurred earlier this year, when NASA launched some worms into space on SpaceX's CRS-5 and CRS-6 missions for a study led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Researchers suspect that the roundworms may have undergone epigenetic changes and other biological shifts that reduced muscle and bone mass, mirroring the deterioration experienced by astronauts. During space travel, "proper exercise often is not possible to counteract this kind of deconditioning," said Atsushi Higashitani, lead researcher on the study for Japan's Tohoku University.

A deeper understanding of how and why these changes occur could lead to treatments and therapies allowing astronauts to endure longer missions in space. The hurdles to our next giant leap in space travel are enormous. But these experiments with C. elegans demonstrate the infinitesimal steps that may one day lead to putting a person on Mars.

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