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Mars Space Worms Science

How Tiny Worms Could Help Humans Colonize Mars 101

Pierre Bezukhov writes "The roundworm has about 20,000 protein-coding genes — nearly as many as humans, who have about 23,000. Furthermore, there is a lot of overlap between our genome and theirs, with many genes performing roughly the same functions in both species. Launching C. elegans roundworms to Mars would allow scientists to see just how dangerous the high radiation levels found in deep space — and on the Red Planet's surface — are to animal life. 'Worms allow us to detect changes in growth, development, reproduction and behavior in response to environmental conditions such as toxins or in response to deep space missions,' said Nathaniel Szewczyk of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. 'Given the high failure rate of Mars missions, use of worms allows us to safely and relatively cheaply test spacecraft systems prior to manned missions,' he adds."
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How Tiny Worms Could Help Humans Colonize Mars

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  • by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 @06:04PM (#38219708) Homepage Journal
    There's a reason C. elegans isn't used in basic cell cycle research as much as yeast. It doesn't continually replace its cells at maturity. Consequentially, DNA-damaging environmental conditions have a much lower chance of affecting them at maturity than humans.
  • by newcastlejon ( 1483695 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 @06:16PM (#38219908)

    Perhaps the choice of test subject had more to do with the ease of tending to them automatically over such a long time frame; using larger organisms like lab mice would likely be impractical. Methinks the similarity in the size of the genome is a happy coincidence.

    What puzzles me is why it's necessary to send animals to Mars at all. Are there really that many more cosmic rays en route to Mars than there are where the ISS is?

  • by ackthpt ( 218170 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 @06:17PM (#38219954) Homepage Journal

    It's about time we launched terraforming bacteria at all the planets and moons in the solar system.

    Where, if the bacteria didn't outright die, it would proceed at a pace which would make glaciers appear as a blur.

  • by crakbone ( 860662 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 @06:32PM (#38220186)
    The ISS is behind the Van Allen Belt and protected from a large amount of cosmic radiation by it.
  • by Baloroth ( 2370816 ) on Wednesday November 30, 2011 @06:38PM (#38220272)

    What puzzles me is why it's necessary to send animals to Mars at all. Are there really that many more cosmic rays en route to Mars than there are where the ISS is?

    Courtesy of the Magnetosphere [], yes. The ISS is only about 300km up, while the magnetosphere extends over a dozen Earth radii (tens of thousands of km), blocking most radiation. There is far more in space than in Earth orbit.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 30, 2011 @10:23PM (#38222252)

    In my opinion, their proteins are irrelevant to the experiment. C. Elegans lives two to three weeks. Even under perfect circumstances, the trip to Mars is going to take longer than the average lifespan of these worms. That means the worms have to reproduce in order for any to reach Mars alive. The radiation might not kill them by damaging their proteins in that short time, but it could sterilize them (they're hermaphrodites, each worm can impregnate itself, but must have working reproductive organs).

    What do we know about long-term effects of interplanetary radiation on humans?

    Chronic and acute radiation exposure have been studied. Most animals have cell repair mechanisms that make chronic exposure much less hazardous, up to a point. Interplanetary radiation between Earth and Mars orbit is probably closer to acute levels, except that blocking Alpha radiation and some Beta is possible with just a sheet of aluminum.

    I bet the worms will survive for at least two generations (4-6 weeks approx.) but die out before food and oxygen are exhausted.
    More importantly, I think people would survive the trip, but suffer from being sterile long before cancer becomes an issue. That means any people living on Mars would only be visiting, unless they spent their lives below the surface and each generation became parents as young as possible.

    Worms are also messy. The cabin in a shuttle, rocket or space station are kept pristine by comparison. People dispose of their waste. The decay of the worm soil might raise the pressure in their small container. That might be a problem if it's a sophisticated design with an O2 inlet and CO2 outlet/scrubber. Higher air pressure could prevent oxygen from being fed in, and the worms then suffocate.

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