Worms Are Subject of Outer Space Experiment
For nearly six months, a legion of worms has been traveling through space. While it may sound more like science fiction, it is in fact true. Actually, over 100,000 have been aboard the International Space Station. Scientists at Simon Fraser University plan on studying them up return in order to see the effects of radiation in outer space. The study is of particular importance, considering that NASA has intentions of sending a crew of astronauts to Mars within the next few decades.
Bob Johnsen, lead scientist in the study, claims that he is very excited about the worms’ return. In fact, he will be traveling to Cape Canaveral to collect the worms from the Space Shuttle Discovery. But he isn’t the only person excited about their return. A sixth grade science class from Ontario, Canada has also been keeping up with the worms. They have been examining pictures of the worms sent from outer space and intend on actually viewing the worms after they arrive back on earth.
According to researchers at the university’s molecular biology department, the worms typically have a two week life span here on earth, meaning that the worms will have produced somewhere around 28 generations, especially since the worms are no longer than the width of a grain of salt. Johnsen wants to use this to his advantage by looking at how the radiation affected and damaged the DNA of the worms, thus creating mutations in the multiple generations. He hopes to apply this to future human space travel, particularly with lengthy space travels that might involve years away from earth, and perhaps even childbirth. Interestingly, the worms have about 20,000 genes (about the same number as humans), with nearly half of those performing the same functions as human genes.
Johnsen states, “When you’re on the space station you can measure radiation with physical detectors but you really don’t know what the biological effects are on people that are staying on the space station for long periods of time. We want to get some understanding of the types of damages that space radiation causes and hope that we’ll be able to start working on some countermeasures to protect our astronauts when they’re going on these longer missions.” (Bains, 1) Of course, this type of understanding is only the tip of the iceberg, as space travel may one day be more profound than a prolonged stay at the International Space Station. In fact, NASA scientists want to learn as much as possible about space radiation, considering that they plan on landing a shuttle on Mars by 2035.
According to current data, one out of eight round-trip travelers to Mars would die from radiation poisoning, while the other seven would become seriously ill.
Source: Camille Bains, “Worms in Space.” Classified Extra. URL: (http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Science/2007/06/15/pf-4263528.html)