Worm colonies can be established on space stations without the need for researchers to tend to them, which could help scientists understand the effects of weightlessness and high radiation levels experienced in space, a new study has found.
Since space is no easy amble, humans must first learn to cheaply and safely propel themselves into space regularly, and then, once there, must adapt to high levels of radiation and to weightlessness.
In preparation for longer spaceflight, researchers from the University of Nottingham have designed shields to deflect harmful energetic particles, and continue to study the ill-effect of weightlessness on astronauts.
The gravity studies have mostly focused on a group of muscles, broadly known as anti-gravity muscles, which seem to deteriorate without the gravitational pull of the Earth.
However, there is some evidence for the weakening in all muscles, including the hearts of astronauts.
According to Nathaniel Szewczyk, weightlessness not only sees animals use their muscles less, but causes changes in the chemical reactions within the muscle cells.
Szewczyk and his team, looked at the effects of weightlessness on the muscles of worms, because these multicellular animals share many genes with humans, and can therefore help scientists gauge the long-term impacts of deep spaceflight on human life.
The recent mission saw Szewczyk’s worms return to Earth with the space shuttle Discovery, and it was the longest time worms have survived and been recovered.
This was possible because the international team established an automated setup for growing worms that transferred a subset of worms to fresh food every month, filming the worms; progress as they went.
The technique was dependent on establishing that worms fare just as well in liquid as they do on their usual agar plates.
"Because we had the bad experience with shuttle STS-107, which of course is the shuttle that broke up, we are keen to avoid being dependent on getting the worms back," the BBC quoted Szewczyk as saying.
The study has been published in the Royal Society journal.