Mittwoch, 18. Februar 2009


A mosquito which survived 18 months in outer space has just returned home to planet Earth. At first I thought the traveling culicidae had boarded the International Space Station by mistake, or had perhaps been lost and forgotten in similar fashion to the spider which ran riot on the ISS last year.

In fact, the mosquito was only one of a handful of lucky organisms to be stuffed into a tin can and exposed to outer terrestrial conditions; temperatures ranging from -150C to 60C, no food, presumably no air (although this isn't mentioned in the article). The mosquito was the only one to survive. The experiment was started by Russian cosmonauts, who launched various fungi and larvae out of the ISS to help understand how they might survive on Mars (... any excuse). Japanese scientists got involved and suggested trying out mosquitos, which can survive extreme conditions in their natural environments by entering suspended animation. Suspended animation seems to be the keyword here, if we can crack that, all manner of beasts and birds will be able to survive the hardships of the final frontier.

When suspended animation sets in, water molecules are replaced by tricallosa sugar, which leads to natural crystallization. The larvae were then sprayed with acetone, boiled and cooled down to minus 210 degrees Celsius, the temperature of liquid nitrogen. Amazingly, they survived all these hardships.

The Japanese also studied bloodworm DNA and found that it could be switched on and deactivated in 30 to 40 minutes. "This is facilitated by the crystallization of biological matter," Doctor of Biology Vladimir Sychev from the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems told RIA Novosti.

Dr. Sychev said scientists were interested in this mechanism, which makes it possible to assess the potential of living organisms subjected to multiple loads in outer space.

He said plant studies had made headway, but that living organisms were affected by gravitation, radiation and temperature fluctuations.

The next stage in this bizarre case of astro-zoology will involve sending a selection of organisms to the Martian moon of Phobos. Again, the idea will be to subject the poor critters to alien environments, wait for most to die, and then return to Earth claiming international plaudits.

An alternative, more exciting scenario is that the Phobos mission will become a kind of Noah's Ark. Perhaps a catastrophic nuclear event will destroy all life on Earth as the mission is approaching the Red Planet, leaving the team of astronauts with nothing but a selection of Nature's least loved creations to help set up a post-apocalyptic Martian colony. At first they will curse the funding program, which meant they had to settle for bringing spiders and weeds instead of cows and wheat. Gradually evolution will set in, and the primitive lifeforms will be nurtured in to new foods and friends for the Phobian people, a proud folk with a fresh conviction of their unique brilliance, heralding the new dawn of mankind. Eventually, the outnumbered humans will be enslaved and destroyed by the bastard, mutant descendants of the garden earthworm and the dandylion.

Ludicrous scenarios aside, now that we know creatures can survive in space, it probably won't be long before we do start launching arks towards potentially inhabitable planets. All the components of a functioning ecosystem would be put into suspended animation and sent to remote light years, waiting to spring in to life after crash landing on some distant rock in another galaxy. Maybe that's how life started on our planet; the remnants of an ancient alien nature, destroyed by a supernova millions of years previously, floating towards a random blue dot that was just waiting for that spark...

Once fully recovered, the heroic mosquito of the recent successfull mission would surely be the first candidate for such an ark. He is currently resting after his first ordeal, tired, confused, but healhy: "We brought him back to Earth. He is alive, and his feet are moving,"

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