What can sending tiny worms into space tell us about ageing? And is it significant that they can survive a crash landing back to Earth? Ten years after the Columbia space shuttle burnt up on re-entry into the atmosphere, Ellen Charman speaks to Dr Nate Szewczyk from the MRC/Arthritis Research UK Centre for Musculoskeletal Ageing about putting Caenorhabditis elegans into orbit.
When the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas in February 2003, tragically killing all seven of its crew, it was expected that the 80 science experiments on board would also be destroyed.
However a week after the accident, five of the six thermos-sized canisters on board — containing petri dishes of C. elegans — were found intact. Close inspection under the microscope revealed that all but one of the canisters contained wriggling worms.
Dr Nate Szewczyk, who was working at NASA at the time, says that these unexpected events yielded important insights.
“It showed that it is possible for multi-celled animals to come through the atmosphere unscathed and is evidence of the spread of life between planets. It also fits with the origin of life concept whereby the very first molecules travelled to earth embedded in meteorites.” Read more