Thursday, May 01, 2003

Are there any survivors in the Columbia space shuttle which disintegrated upon reentry to Earth? The answer: there are no human survivors but there are some non-human ones. Some living organisms actually made the trip home safely - these are worms, called C. elegans, on board the shuttle as part of a scientific experiment. These primitive multicellular creatures - hundreds of them - were found in containers among the debris of the shuttle collected together in Texas.

C. elegans are actually very interesting living organisms. They have two sexes: males and hermaphrodites, which are females that produce sperm. Apparently a hermaphrodite worm can fertilize her own eggs! Typically 300 eggs are self-fertilized but later the female usually prefers to accept sperm from males to produce a larger number of offspring.

Having a life-cycle of between 7 to 10 days, these sexually versatile space travellers have already bred 4 or 5 generations since boarding the Columbia. Human beings have made tremendous strides in science and space exploration but we are essentially very fragile physical creatures - easily-punctured skin-bags of flesh and blood - unsuitable for exploring the hostile worlds of inter-planetary space. Perhaps the future of space travel belongs to more robust machines and artificially created organisms who could do the job on our behalf. Primitive creatures like these worms, who could gather data and information at the molecular level, communicate, reproduce and survive the hardzadous journey to and back from the depths of space could be our future astronauts.

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