NASA to Launch Squids Into Space

bobtail squid photo
Photo: JennyHuang / cc

Although NASA's latest launch may spell the end of an era for soon-to-be retired space shuttle Endeavor, it marks a major leap forward for aquatic invertebrates. Sure, classic illustrations of animal evolution typically depict species adjusting to life on land before going any higher -- but thanks to a NASA sponsored experiment designed by students, one group of baby squids will skip that step altogether. That's right, squids are heading to space.Among several sponsored experiments to be carried aboard the shuttle Endeavor's final voyage into space, one designed by Florida high school and college students really stands out. Lead by University of Florida PhD research scientist Jamie Foster, the experiment hopes to test the effects of microgravity on squid embryos.

Bobtail squid embryos were selected to be taken into space to study because of the bacterial process that allows them to produce light in the watery depths. This symbiotic relationship plays an important role in the structural development the animal itself -- but no one really knows what role, if any, gravity plays in this process.

Students from the Milton Academy contributed to the study; its Web site provides a nice summary of the experiment's aims:

The light is powered by a particular bioluminescent bacteria (Vibrio fishceri) that the squid draws in from the surrounding water. Every day it expels the old bacteria and takes in a new batch. Newly born squid can't produce the light, but within several hours they become bioluminescent as they take in the bacteria. This development gives scientists a close look at morphogenesis, which is the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape--one of the fundamentals of development biology.

The squid experiment came about when Ned learned about the work of Dr. Jamie S. Foster at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Dr. Foster's work is focused on what happens to this morphogenesis process under micro-gravity conditions. Her work could open up a new area of scientific discovery about how gravity affects animal and plant development.

Throughout the history of human space exploration, a myriad of animals have been sent to space. In fact, the first Earthlings to leave our planet were a group of fruit flies in the 1940s. Those early experiments were designed to test the survivability of space flight -- later, they were aimed at advancing scientific understanding.

An incomplete list of animal species that have been in space, in somewhat chronological order, include: Rhesus and squirrel monkeys, mice, dogs, chimps, guinea pigs, frogs, cats, wasps, beetles, tortoises, worms, stick insects, spiders, newts, chicken embryos, fish, crickets, snails, and bees.

And though sadly, many of those animal astronauts didn't survive the journey, their sacrifice has helped pave the way for an untold number of scientific advancements over the decades, shedding light on the wonders of life on Earth.

Here's hoping for a safe voyage and return for both human and squid space travelers alike. Let's just hope this isn't how Kang and Kodos got their start.

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