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Bob Johnsen

The housing where the 1-millimetre-long worms lived during their time aboard the International Space Station.

Worms from space show DNA change

February 4, 2010

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It sounds like science fiction.

In 2007, SFU molecular biologists David Baillie and Bob Johnsen froze in liquid nitrogen about 100,000 tiny worms returned from a six-month experiment aboard the International Space Station until they could analyze their DNA for radiation damage.

The C. elegans worms have some 20,000 genes like humans, around 60 per cent of which perform similar functions. And with a two-week approximate lifespan they produced about 28 generations in space.

The two scientists are studying the mutations over those generations to help determine what kinds of radiation damage humans may encounter with prolonged exposure during trips to Mars.

When Baillie and Johnsen thawed out their space travellers, they found that three out of 1,000 worms had damaged or missing DNA—a statistically high number given that just one in 10,000 would typically exhibit such damage on Earth.

Now the research duo is applying for funding to sequence the worms’ genome, which will give them more detailed information about chromosomal damage.

Baillie says the difference in the sensitivity of a standard DNA analysis versus genomic sequencing is like discovering whether a page has been torn from a book or whether there are letters missing.

"Current measuring devices tell us how much radiation they will encounter but don’t indicate the type of damage that will be sustained or how much," explains Baillie.

"Experimenting with the worms may one day result in ways to induce repair systems for DNA so that people can space travel without too much damage from radiation."

The space worms have a genetic change called eT1, which can maintain any genetic mutations indefinitely through future generations. Normally, says Johnsen, such deleterious mutations are lost because progeny that have them do not survive well, whereas progeny without them prosper.

If funding comes through, the researchers will conduct the genomic sequencing at the BC Genome Centre.

The Canadian Space Agency sponsored the six-month experiment aboard the space station.

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