11/30/2011 06:40 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

Space Worms: Caenorhabditis Elegans Study Could Help Humans Travel To And Live On Mars

The answer to how humans might react to long stints in the high-radiation and low-gravity environment of deep space may lie in microscopic worms that came from a trash heap in Bristol, England.

In 2006, scientists from the University of Nottingham sent 4,000 Caenorhabditis elegans, nematodes with biological characteristics similar to that of a human, into space aboard the shuttle Discovery.

According to the study, which is published in the current edition of Interface, a Journal of the Royal Society, scientists monitored the roundworms for three months and found that they not only grew from egg to adult at exactly the same rate in low-earth orbit as they do on the ground, but they also reproduce with the same frequency.

"Additionally," the study abstract states, "these animals display normal rates of movement when fully fed, comparable declines in movement when starved, and appropriate growth arrest upon starvation and recovery upon re-feeding."

Because the C. elegans worms only live for two to three weeks, the scientists were able to monitor 12 generations of the worm.

From DiscoveryNews:

This particular worm species was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genetic structure completely mapped. Many of its 20,000 genes perform the same functions as those in humans, so geneticists and medical experts often use it for investigations relevant to human biology and health.

"While it may seem surprising, many of the biological changes that happen during spaceflight affect astronauts and worms and in the same way," Nathaniel Szewczyk, the scientist from the School of Graduate Entry Medicine and Health who led the research, said in a statement. "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."

Szewczyk added that since the roundworms are a cost effective way for studying how animals react to the conditions of deep space, they could one day be sent to another planet, like Mars. Researchers could then remotely monitor how the worms are affected and gather clues to how humans would react to life on the Red Planet.

NASA is currently developing the Space Launch System (SLS), a heavy-lift rocket that may one day take humans to Mars. And earlier this month, six men completed a 17-month stay in a small, windowless capsule that simulated a mission to and from the red planet.

PBS spoke to Paul Sternberg, a nematode geneticist at the California Institute of Technology who wasn't involved in the study.

"Twelve generations in space is good," Sternberg said in the interview. "It means radiation isn't beating the crap out of them. So this is definitely an advance."

This particular type of worm has been sent into space at least four times. In fact, according to DiscoveryNews, descendants of some of the worms that survived the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster were sent back into space last summer.

According to a media release from the University of Nottingham, further results from the worm missions are expected to be published soon.