His team sent 4,000 microscopic worms, Caenorhabditis elegans, into space aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and were able to successfully remotely monitor 12 generations of them over a period of 6 months, whilst they were housed on the International Space Station.
This type of worm has long been used by scientists to further our understanding of human biology. They were the first multi-cellular organism to have its genetic structure completely mapped, and many of their genes perform the same function as found in humans, such as promoting muscle function.
According to Szewczyk, in a study recently published in the journal ‘Interface’, many of the biological changes that occur during space flight affect astronauts and worms in the same way.
"We have been able to show that worms can grow and reproduce in space for long enough to reach another planet and that we can remotely monitor their health. Worms allow us to detect changes in growth, development, reproduction and behaviour in response to environmental conditions such as toxins or in response to deep space missions," Szewczyk said.
This makes the worms an ideal and cost-effective way to study the possible effects of both long term and long distance human space exploration, which are known to have major challenges associated with them, including exposure to high levels of radiation, rapid loss of bone density and muscle weakness.