Tag Archives: worm

Scientists increase worm’s lifespan by 500%

C. elegans, a nematode worm, is one of the most widely used model organisms in labs across the world. It’s often the animal of choice when studying longevity because of its relatively short lifespan of only three to four weeks, which allows scientists to quickly discern the effects of genetics and the environment. Now, an international team of researchers claims they have tweaked the worm’s genes, extending its lifespan by up to 500%.

Photograph of the Caenorhabditis elegans adult hermaphrodite . Scale bar, 100 μm.  Credit: ResearchGate, Nobuyuki Hamada.

The team, which includes scientists affiliated with the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Calif., and Nanjing University in China, focused on two major pathways: the insulin signaling (IIS) and TOR pathways. These pathways are “conserved”, meaning they’ve been passed down by a common ancestor to both worms and humans.

Researchers mutated both pathways, expecting a 100% increase in lifespan due to the mutated ISS pathways and a 30% increase from the TOR pathway. Instead, they noticed that their altered worms lived up to 500% longer (4-5 months versus 3-4 weeks) than they normally would.

Jarod A. Rollins of the MDI Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. Credit: MDI Biological Laboratory.

“The synergistic extension is really wild,” said Jared Rollins of Nanjing University, who is one of the lead authors of the new study, which was published in Cell Reports. “The effect isn’t one plus one equals two, it’s one plus one equals five. Our findings demonstrate that nothing in nature exists in a vacuum; in order to develop the most effective anti-aging treatments we have to look at longevity networks rather than individual pathways.”

This synergistic interaction could pave the way for novel therapies designed to extend the human lifespan similarly to how some combination therapies treat cancer presently.

“Despite the discovery in C. elegans of cellular pathways that govern aging, it hasn’t been clear how these pathways interact,” said Hermann Haller, M.D., president of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory. “By helping to characterize these interactions, our scientists are paving the way for much-needed therapies to increase healthy lifespan for a rapidly aging population.”

These findings may also explain why scientists have been unable to put their finger on a single gene, or even a collection of genes, that allows some people to reach extraordinary old ages free of major illnesses.

In the future, Rollins and colleagues want to focus their research on how longevity is regulated by mitochondria, the organelles responsible for supplying cells with energy. Previously, studies have suggested that poor mitochondria function is associated with aging.

Fossil Friday: ancient predatory worm leaves behind no trace, except its burrows

Fossil hunters in Taiwan have found the undersea lair of an ancient, predatory giant worm. The 20-million-year-old animal grew to be 2 meters (6.6 ft) long and ambushed unsuspecting prey and dragged them down to its burrow.

Vertical section of the upper part of Pennichnus formosae with funnel top (yellow line), disturbed zone (dashed red lines), and feather-like collapse structures (dashed white lines). Image credits Yu-Yen Pan et al., (2021), Scientific Reports.

The worm might have been similar to Eunice aphroditois, modern ambush predator worms that hunt using a similar approach. Although it’s not possible to tell if these two species were related by the fossil alone, it’s still a spectacular find.

Ancient murder macaroni

“After 20m years, it’s not possible to say whether this was made by an ancestor of the bobbit worm [Eunice aphroditois] or another predatory worm that worked in more or less the same way,” said Prof Ludvig Löwemark, a sedimentologist at National Taiwan University and co-author of the paper.

“There’s huge variation in bobbit worm behaviour, but this seems very similar to the shallow water worms that reach out, grab fish and pull them down.”

Although they’re soft-bodied like other worms, these predatory worms have sharp, powerful jaws that can pack quite a punch. The fossil worm likely hunted in a similar fashion, but for now we can only hypothesize.

What the team found isn’t a fossil of the worm itself (soft tissues don’t fossilize and worms are basically entirely soft tissue), rather, they found the fossil of its burrow. Löwemark and his colleagues discovered it while studying sedimentary rocks on the north-eastern coast of Taiwan that hail from around the same time as the worm. If they’re anything like today’s worm burrows, these were reinforced with mucus produced by the worm to make them more resilient.

Today, the fossil burrows sometimes simply protrude from the sandstone they formed in, suggesting that they’re harder than the rock and supporting the mucus-reinforcement hypothesis.

Although the team was initially confused as to what these were, they noticed a distinctive pattern at the top of the 3 cm-wide structures. This looked like several inverted funnels that got stacked on top of one another, they explain, giving the opening of the structures a feathered look in cross-section.

Schematic of E. aphroditois hunting from burrows, likely a similar behavior to that of the fossil species. Image credits Yu-Yen Pan et al., (2021), Scientific Reports.

These marks allowed the team to rule out burrowing creatures such as shrimp or stingrays as the builders. Finally, the only remaining possibility was that of an animal behaving like today’s predatory worms. The structures at the top, the team notes, is produced by repeated rebuilding of the lair as it collapses every time the worms pull prey in.

“This results in the stack of cone-in-cone structures that form the ‘feathers’ around the uppermost part of the tube,” said Löwemark.

The team reports they’ve found 319 such burrows in sandstone formations from the Yehliu Geopark and on the nearby Badouzi promontory, suggesting that the area was heavily populated with these worms in the past. They’ve named the trace fossil burrows Pennichnus formosae.

Although they hoped to find fossilized remains of the worms themselves or their prey, the team hasn’t been so lucky yet.

The paper “The 20-million-year old lair of an ambush-predatory worm preserved in northeast Taiwan” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Researchers finally figure out the protein that senses cold temperatures

New research is homing in on the biochemical mechanisms that allow mammals to feel cold.

Image credits Antonio Jose Cespedes.

The study is the first to identify a protein that responds to extreme cold. The gene is evolutionarily conserved across species, including humans.


“Clearly, nerves in the skin can sense cold. But no one has been able to pinpoint exactly how they sense it,” said Shawn Xu, a faculty member at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute and senior author of the study. “Now, I think we have an answer.”

It’s vital for our bodies to be able to perceive temperature. When it gets too chilly outside, we need to feel that uncomfortable ‘cold‘ sensation so that we’ll seek shelter, warmth, and not die from exposure.

It falls to receptor proteins in the nerves of our skin to perceive this change and then relay the information to our brains. This mechanism holds true from humans down to very simple organisms, such as the millimeter-long worms that researchers study in Xu’s lab at the Life Sciences Institute: Caenorhabditis elegans.

We seek warmer environments when we’re cold, and Xu’s worms do the same thing: when they sense cold, they engage in avoidance behavior and move away, seeking warmth. However, unlike us, C. elegans have a simple and well-mapped genome, and a short lifespan, making them a valuable model system for studying sensory responses.

Previous efforts to find the receptor for cold have been unsuccessful because researchers were focusing on specific groups of genes that are related to sensation, which is a biased approach, Xu said. Instead, he and his team relied on the simplicity of C. elegans for an ‘unbiased approach’.

The team looked across thousands of random genetic variations to determine which affected the worms’ responses to cold. They report that worms engineered to lack the glutamate receptor gene glr-3 no longer responded when temperatures dipped below 18 degrees Celsius (64 F).

Glr-3 is responsible for making the eponymous GLR-3 receptor protein; without this protein, the worms lost sensitivity to cold temperatures, a strong indicator that it underpins the ability to sense cold.

The glr-3 gene is evolutionarily conserved across species including humans. The vertebrate versions of the gene can also function as a cold-sensing receptor, the team adds. The team determined this after adding the mammalian version of the gene to mutant worms lacking glr-3 (and were thus insensitive to cold), which made them feel cold temperatures once more.

The team also added the worm, zebrafish, mouse, and human versions of the genes to cold-insensitive mammalian cells, and all allowed the cells to sense to cold temperatures.

The mouse version of the gene, GluK2 has been documented to help transmit chemical signals within the brain. The authors further discovered that the gene is also active in a group of sensory neurons that detect environmental stimuli, such as temperature, through sensory endings in the mice’s skin. Reducing expression of GluK2 in these sensory neurons made the mice insensitive to cold, but not cool, temperatures — additional evidence that the GluK2 protein serves as a cold receptor in mammals.

“For all these years, attention has been focused on this gene’s function in the brain. Now, we’ve found that it has a role in the peripheral sensory system, as well,” Xu said. “It’s really exciting. This was one of the few remaining sensory receptors that had not yet been identified in nature.”

The paper “A Cold-Sensing Receptor Encoded by a Glutamate Receptor Gene” has been published in the journal Cell.

Newly-discovered fossil worm shows early animals were more complex than we thought

The discovery of a new fossil worm shows that life developed symmetrical bodies and locomotion earlier than previously believed.

Image credits Dr. Zhe Chen / Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology.

One of the geological periods in Earth’s history, the Cambrian, is famous for the rapid pace and huge scale of biological development it saw. In the so-called Cambrian explosion (of life), biology experimented with a stunning diversity of animal forms, setting some of the body plans still seen today.

The new fossil, which formed sometime between 551 million and 539 million years ago (in the Ediacaran period, just before the Cambrian), challenges the idea that the Cambrian explosion singlehandedly ushered in modern life.

Old tricks

Life in the Ediacaran was downright weird. Most animals living at the time don’t even use body parts and shapes that you would immediately recognize; most were also unable to move around, preferring to find a spot, bind to it, and make it home.

However, Cambrian life didn’t evolve from scratch — it evolved based on organisms living in the Ediacaran. Fossilized tracks were discovered from the Ediacaran, as well as one odd disk-like creature, but the two didn’t fit.

We now have a better idea of what was moving around in those primordial times. A new paper reports the discovery of Yilingia spiciformis, an Ediacaran worm that is pretty similar to other worms living today. Yilingia had a segmented body, was mobile, and it even appears to have been able to burrow into sediments.

A fossil of Yilingia spiciformis and the track it left as it moved.
Image credits Z. Chen et al., (2019), Nature.

The worm grew to less than 3 centimeters (1 inch) at its widest, but was up to 27 centimeters (nearly a foot) long. It was described based on specimens uncovered in Ediacaran deposits in the Hubei Province, China; the team explains they retrieved 33 samples (many of them partial), and left a 34th specimen in place at the site where it was discovered.

Yilingia’s body was composed of a series of segments. Each segment is divided between a central piece, flanked by two lobes that extend toward its tail. The segments don’t appear to be specialized, only differing in size. It is possible that some of these segments had arthropod-like appendages attached, but the evidence is pretty flimsy so the team reserves their judgment on that point.

The segments near the worm’s head and tail are slightly narrower compared to those in the middle of the body, but Yilingia seems to completely lack a head and tail. The authors describe the evidence for a specialized head as “weak, if not totally absent.”

In order to tell which end was the tail and which the head, the team looked at the tracks the worms left as they crawled on ancient sediments. The team found about a dozen traces in the sediments consistent with tracks being left by Yilingia and a 13th trace which ended at the body of one worm.

Some of the trackways ended at what appeared to be burrows, indicating that Yilingia was able to dig into sediments as well as traverse their surfaces.

Right now, the team is still trying to determine where on the tree of life should Yilingia be. An obvious assignment would be to put it in Annelida, a group that includes many segmented worms. If the limbs turn out to be real, it would probably group with the arthropods. However, arthropods are defined as having compound eyes, a brain, and other features that are absent from Yilingia. The team says it’s possible that the work may be closer to an arthropod ancestor, should the limb issue end up favoring this interpretation.

The main takeaways from this study is that bilaterally symmetric animals, body segmentation, and mobility predate the Cambrian explosion. In other words, these elements were present before the Cambrian and served to fuel the spectacular biological evolution of that period, rather than be created by it.

The paper “Death march of a segmented and trilobate bilaterian elucidates early animal evolution” has been published in the journal Nature.

Roundworms brought back to life after spending 42,000 years iced in permafrost

These creatures have set a new record for cryogenic survival.

The nematodes isolated from permafrost deposits of the Kolyma River Lowland. Image credits: Shatilovich et al.

The Kolyma River in north-eastern Siberia flows along over 2,129 kilometers (1,323 miles) before ultimately emptying into a part of the Arctic Ocean. For the most part (about 250 days each year), the Kolyma is frozen to depths of several meters. Similarly, most of the path it flows along is surrounded by thick ice — after all, this is the permafrost land we’re talking about.

A while back, Russian biologists dug up more than 300 samples of frozen soil from the area. They found that the samples are teeming with microscopic life: single-celled cyanobacteria, green algae, and yeasts. But among these samples, they also found some macroscopic organisms — namely, some nematodes (Panagrolaimus aff. detritophagus and Plectus aff. parvus) — or, as most people would call them, roundworms.

Some were found in what was likely a ground squirrel burrow some 32,000 years ago, but had since caved in and frozen over. The others were found in a bore sample at a depth of around 3.5 meters (about 11.5 feet). They were carbon dated and found to be 42,000 years old. There’s still the off chance of contamination, but researchers have detailed their strict practices, and peer-review also confirmed the sterility procedures.

After identifying the worms, biologists placed them in a room kept at a mellow temperature of 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). It didn’t take long before they started showing signs of life. Within weeks, they were moving around and eating, setting a new record for how long animals can survive frozen in ice.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Longest survival” footer=””]In 2000, scientists found bacteria spores inside 250 million-year-old salt crystals, and after careful processing, were able to bring them back to life.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the tricks bacteria pull off to survive so long cannot be applied to macroscopic creatures, which are much more complex. Roundworms are remarkably sturdy creatures (related to tardigrades), but they don’t even come close to bacteria. Yet even tardigrades, these incredibly resilient creatures, have “only” been known to survive for decades after preservation.


Aside from the main story, — that the creatures survived for 42,000 years, frozen — there are two ways to look at this. The first is optimistic and upbeat: by studying the mechanisms which allowed them to survive, we can learn more about cryomedicine and how creatures (potentially, alien creatures) survive in extreme environments.

“It is obvious that this ability suggests that the Pleistocene nematodes have some adaptive mechanisms that may be of scientific and practical importance for the related fields of science, such as cryomedicine, cryobiology, and astrobiology,” the researchers write in their study.

But there’s a darker side to the story. As global warming takes its course and much of the permafrost continues to melt, it could release a string of pathogens currently frozen. What the consequences will be is anyone’s guess.

This research was published in Doklady Biological Sciences.

France is being invaded by giant, predatory worms

This silent invasion has been taking place for 20 years, but scientists have just now noticed.

Image credits: Pierre Gros.

It’s not every day that an amateur naturalist and gardener publishes a scientific study, but that’s exactly what happened in France. Pierre Gros found some unusual worms in his garden — they were big, predatory, and sported a hammer-like head. He took photos and forwarded them to Jean-Lou Justine of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Justine was annoyed, as he thought someone was playing a prank on him. The worms were obviously hammerhead flatworms (genera Bipalium and Diversibipalium) — the only problem is that hammerhead flatworms are native to the warmer parts of Asia, nowhere near Europe. Gros sent Justin more and more photos, leading the latter to express his frustration to the Washington Post: “The man is bringing back worms from his travels, and he pretends he finds them in his garden!”

But Gros persisted, and after a while, he managed to convince Justine that this was not just a prank. The worms were very much real, and they were very much in France. Shocked, Justine embarked on a four-year survey to see what was going on with the worms, and why they were seemingly thriving in France.

Image credits: Justine et al.

The duo made use of citizen science, asking people to report as many sightings as possible. Observations ranged from Western and Northern France all the way to the South-Eastern corner of the country — even the island of Corsica. At one point, scientists received an email from frightened kindergarteners who thought they had found writhing snakes — but the snakes turned out to be hammerhead worms. Another observation came from a 1999 VHS tape. There was also a Twitter account dedicated to the cause, which sent out photos the team had received.

When the survey was complete, it was revealed that the worms, which can reach up to 27 centimeters (10.6 inches) had invaded France at least 20 years ago, and they were indeed thriving. There are several reasons this was happening: for one, the worms can reproduce asexually, which enables a single individual to produce many offspring immediately. This means that if a single worm somehow arrived in France, it could start a population on its own, something that’s not possible in the case of sexual reproduction. Secondly, the worms also don’t have any natural predators. Thirdly, being so big allows them to overcome competition and fend off other, smaller worms.

Some worms were identified as Bipalium kewenseB. vagum, and Diversibipalium multilineatum. However, two are utterly alien to the stunned scientists and are as yet unnamed.

Of course, worms are an invasive species and they can cause severe problems in their soil ecosystems. France isn’t alone in suffering from this invasion of these worms. Similar cases have been reported in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, and Australia. However, there is surprisingly little scientific literature on the matter.

But how did the worms get there in the first place? Justine admits he is still baffled by this. “I don’t understand how this is possible,” he told the Independent. However, this is not an isolated case — invasive species are becoming more and more common in most parts of the world. Invasive shells can travel the world on the hull of ships, invasive fish can devastate entire streams and lakes, and of course, species can also be released into the wild by humans, often with devastating consequences.

Invasive species also tend to have traits that allow them to out-compete native species

Journal Reference: Jean-Lou Justine, Leigh Winsor, Delphine Gey, Pierre Gros, Jessica Thévenot — Giant worms chez moi! Hammerhead flatworms (Platyhelminthes, Geoplanidae, Bipalium spp., Diversibipalium spp.) in metropolitan France and overseas French territories. PeerJ6:e4672 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4672

German supermarket starts selling burgers made from worms

The key to success, producers say, is to create a burger that looks nice and doesn’t show any worm parts.

This is the actual worm burger. Doesn’t look so bad, does it? Image credits: BugFoundation.

What makes a good burger? Most people would probably say it’s good meat. Vegetarians would argue that you don’t need meat to eat a good burger, and I can confirm — I’ve had my share of delicious, meatless burgers. At the end of the day, the actual ingredients matter less; what we want is a burger that tastes good.

But what if it were made from worms?

Germany start-up Bugfoundation produces burgers made from buffalo worms, which are already being sold for both animal and human consumption. Baris Özel, the co-founder of the start-up that, says he worked on the idea for four years. Along with fellow co-founder Max Krämer, the two were inspired by South-Eastern Asian culture, where it’s not uncommon to eat insects.

“It’s quite simple. You have to create an aesthetic product that looks good and doesn’t show any insects,” Özel told The Guardian, adding that people were attracted by the smell of the burgers. But not everyone is sure about them.

The burger, served with lettuce, onions, and tomatoes, is on offer in supermarkets in the German city of Aachen. The product has already proven popular in the Netherlands (where the worms are bred) and Belgium. Buffalo worms (which are essentially the larvae of buffalo beetles) are a rich source of protein and healthy fats, iron, and calcium. Nutritionally, the worms are arguably healthier than most other meats available on the market, though the long-term effect of eating worms haven’t been studied in great depth. But for most people, the “wow” factor — or conversely, the “yuck” factor — is what’s decisive, not the nutritional factsheet or environmental impact. After all, you’re eating insect larvae.

“We have people who are totally thrilled to find out about the whole thing and have been looking forward to it for days,” said supermarket manager Michael Reinartz. “And we have people who say, ‘you’re not seriously doing that?’”

But reportedly, the burgers smell and taste good, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the idea starts catching on, and worm burgers might soon show up in a supermarket near you. How would you feel, would you try it, at least once?

New treatment effectively kills whipworm — a roundworm which infects 1 billion people

A new treatment from the University of Manchester brings hope for hundreds of millions of people.

The Whipworm egg. Image credits: Wikipedia.

The human whipworm can’t really kill you, but it significantly damages physical and mental growth. People with a whipworm infection may experience bloody diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain — although it’s usually not so bad. But because it mainly affects the least developed parts of the world, and because it’s not as dangerous as other conditions, we still don’t have effective treatments for it — even though it infects as many as 1 billion people.

Current treatments are based on 1960s drugs initially developed for cattle and which have a rather low success rate for humans. There are no vaccines, and treatment is largely unavailable for many people.

Parasite immunologist, Professor Kathryn Else from The University of Manchester, developed a new compound which affects both mature worms, and eggs.

Whipworm eggs are passed from infected faeces into people by hand to mouth contact. This often happens in unsanitary toilets or areas where people live close together. The eggs are highly resistant to extreme temperature changes and ultraviolet radiation and can remain viable in the environment for many years, so they’re quite resistant things. Worms aren’t as resistant as the eggs but they’re also tough. The infection most often affects children, especially those who live in hot, humid climates and in areas with poor sanitation.

The infection most often affects children, especially those who live in hot, humid climates and in areas with poor sanitation. Else said that although a treatment could help a lot of people, it still wouldn’t solve the problem:

“Eradicating the whipworm requires more effective drugs, improving hygiene and vaccine development. The compounds we have discovered could address the first two of these.”

Although we rarely see whipworm infection in the UK, it is a serious and damaging problem in many parts of the world and if we can develop this treatment, the lives of many people could be improved

However, having a treatment (and ideally, a cheap one) could do wonders. Most people don’t even know what whipworm is — even though it affects 1 in 7 people worldwide. Hopefully, that will change.

Journal Reference: Frederick A. Partridge et al — Dihydrobenz[e][1,4]oxazepin-2(3H)-ones, a new anthelmintic chemotype immobilising whipworm and reducing infectivity in vivo

Worm Meatball and Cricket Falafel — Researchers develop tasty food from yucky critters

When it comes to food, we tend to stick to what works — and for most of the world, insects are not on the menu. But in recent years, the idea of eating insects has gained traction across the world and some researchers argue that bugs can be a key part of a sustainable diet. For people who find it hard to go past the ‘yuck factor’, a team from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has some good news: they’ve made tasty meatballs and falafel from crickets and worms.

VTT has developed raw materials from mealworms and crickets which, due to their promising structure and flavour, can be used in the manufacture of foods such as meatballs and falafel. Image credits: VTT

Crickets and worms are the most widely farmed insects in Western countries. I’ve had the chance to taste crickets and can say that they’re not nearly as bad as I would have imagined. A bit stale, but nothing a cold beer can’t wash down. Many other people are also starting to consider insects as a food source, but there’s a problem — people wouldn’t really like to cook insects, for obvious reasons. They also wouldn’t like it to come in a raw form and eat insects one by one. Most consumers would presumably like the food to come in a different form, something pre-cooked or pre-prepared to make it easier to digest (more mentally than physically). Ideally, something that people are already used to — and that’s what the VTT team went for.

They developed a dry fractionation method which separates insect fractions with varying flavors and degrees of coarseness. The finer fractions contain small amounts of the insect’s chitin shell which tend to be rough on the tongue and have a strong meat-like taste, while the coarse fractions have less flavor and more chitin. During the process, fat was also removed from the insects, leaving them with up to 65-80% crude protein.

Then, they figured that since insect fractions are very effective at binding things together, they might work well in things like meatballs or falafel. They replaced 5-18% of meatball or falafel dough with insect fractions, which doubled or even tripled the meal’s protein count. As for the taste? It was just as delicious as the original thing, or at least that’s what they tell us.

Several food manufacturers are already looking at ways through which insects can penetrate the food market. At the moment, insects have not been granted a novel food authorisation within the European Union, but such a decision is expected to come in 2018. In their basic form, insects are already available in some countries in Europe and eating them seems to have become somewhat of a trend. The United Nations promotes insect-eating as a sustainable approach which made them more popular, and it seems reasonable that more and more people will start eating the little critters — but if they could be incorporated into some processed foods, that would certainly help make them more palatable.

Still, there are also environmental concerns about eating insects. A 2016 PLOS study placed a question mark around the whole thing.

“I think the sustainability claims on this topic have been overstated given the current state of knowledge,” wrote study author Dr. Mark Lundy of the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in an e-mail to Time.

So, where do you stand on this? Is eating insects OK? What about insect meatballs? The comment bar is your oyster!


Why worms can actually taste sunshine

Nematodes lack eyes, and why would they have any in the first place? Worms spend their lives inside the soil with little to no contact with sunlight. Yet, despite lacking eyes, worms do detect light — with their nose, sort of.


Credit: Pixabay

Inside the tissue of roundworms, researchers at the University of Michigan found a photoreceptor protein called LITE-1 that’s about 50 times more efficient at capturing light than rhodopsin — the photoreceptor protein found in the human eye. LITE-1 was first discovered among a family of taste receptors in invertebrates and it’s only the third type of photoreceptor found in animals.

“LITE-1 actually comes from a family of taste receptor proteins first discovered in insects,” said Shawn Xu, a faculty member of the U-M Life Sciences Institute, who is also a professor in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the U-M Medical School. “These, however, are not the same taste receptors as in mammals.”

Credit: CELL

Xiu and colleagues were first hinted that the worms must somehow sense light after they flashed the eyeless, slithering critters and found these moved away. It could be that the nematodes sensed chemical reactions triggered by light interaction but eventually it was shown using spectrophotometric analysis that LITE-1 absorbs light. That’s strikingly different to the other two animal photoreceptors which react to photons (light particles) and do not simply absorb them.

“Photoreceptors convert light into a signal that the body can use,” Xu said. “LITE-1 is unusual in that it is extremely efficient at absorbing both UV-A and UV-B light—10 to 100 times greater than the two other types found in the animal kingdom: opsins and cryptochromes. The next step is to better understand why it has these amazing properties.”

That’s not all. Photoreceptors typically found in animals have two main components: a base protein and a light-absorbing chromophore. if you break the photoreceptors apart, the chromophore is still functional. When LITE-1 is broken into its constituents, however, the components’ ability to absorb is completely halted rather than simply diminished. Xu says this is proof that we’re dealing with a whole different photoreceptor model. The worm might be unique, at least in this regard. Perhaps other animals used LITE-1 but we’ve yet to found others.

Writing in the journal Cell, the researchers think LITE-1’s phenomenal ultraviolet absorption efficiency could make it a great ingredient for new, better sunscreens. Artificial photoreceptors used in sensors could also be developed based on the worm’s protein.

Not to worry, the sunscreen industry won’t have to farm millions of worms just so you can catch some rays in peace. Xu and colleagues found having the amino acid tryptophan in two places was critical to its function. When these residues were added to GUR-3, a taste protein from the same family, it began to strongly react to ultraviolet light with about a third the sensitivity to UV-B as LITE-1.

“This suggests scientists may be able to use similar techniques to genetically engineer other new photoreceptors,” Xu said.

Silkworms spin super silk after eating carbon nanotubes and graphene

In a stunning display of nature-meets-technology, researchers have fed carbon nanotubes and graphene to silkworms, creating a much stronger and conductive silk.

Photo by Fastily.

For centuries, silk has been the material choice of the rich. The natural protein fiber can be masterfully woven into textiles which are not only very beautiful and comfortable but also very strong. Silk is produced by several insects, but generally, only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textiles. This is all old and has been studied in detail centuries ago. More recently, researchers experimented with dyes, antimicrobial agents, conductive polymers, and nanoparticles, feeding them to the worms to alter the properties of the silk. This time, they took it an extra step further.

“Silkworm silk is gaining significant attention from both the textile industry and research society because of its outstanding mechanical properties and lustrous appearance,” the study writes. “The possibility of creating tougher silks attracts particular research interest. Carbon nanotubes and graphene are widely studied for their use as reinforcement.”

Yingying Zhang and her colleagues at Tsinghua University fed the worms mulberry leaves. Previously, they sprayed the leaves with substances containing 0.2% nanotubes or graphene. After that, they collected the silk as in any commercial process. The resulting silk was impressive for a number of reasons.

First of all, it was tougher. The carbon-enhanced silk could support 50% higher stress before breaking and was twice as rough. After being heated up to 1,050 °C, the new and improved silk also conducted electricity, unlike regular silk. Granted, it’s not clear just how efficient this is and how long the material would maintain its properties but there could be some very significant applications in smart textiles and sensors.

But while this is promising, many questions still remain. For starters, it’s still not clear whether this is feasible from an economic standpoint. Also, biologically, researchers aren’t really sure what’s happening. We don’t know how much of the graphene/nanotubes is absorbed, nor how the substance is synthesized into the silk. This study only focused on the properties of the silk, leaving the rest for biologists to uncover.

Journal Reference: Feeding Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes or Graphene to Silkworms for Reinforced Silk Fibers. Nano Lett., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.6b03597


Image: Left: Biomphalaria sp., the intermediate host for S. mansoni. Right: Bulinus sp., the intermediate host for S. haematobium and S. intercalatum. Center: Adults of S. mansoni. The thin female resides in the gynecophoral canal of the thicker male. Credit: DPDx

Garlic might help millions suffering from a nasty parasitic worm infection

Schistosoma mansoni might not be as famous as other nasty parasitic worms like flatworms or roundworms, but outside the U.S. this pesky bugger infests more than 200 million people. Symptoms range from rash to organ damage to paralysis. For years, patients have had to rely on drugs that ward off the infection, but for remote or communities in the developing world this may be out of the question. There’s a widely available remedy found almost anywhere in the world though, according to Egyptian researchers. And it’s so cheap that it literally grows in the ground: garlic.

Image: Left: Biomphalaria sp., the intermediate host for S. mansoni. Right: Bulinus sp., the intermediate host for S. haematobium and S. intercalatum. Center: Adults of S. mansoni. The thin female resides in the gynecophoral canal of the thicker male. Credit: DPDx

Image: Left: Biomphalaria sp., the intermediate host for S. mansoni. Right: Bulinus sp., the intermediate host for S. haematobium and S. intercalatum. Center: Adults of S. mansoni. The thin female resides in the gynecophoral canal of the thicker male. Credit: DPDx

Schistosoma mansoni causes Schistosoma infection, also known as bilharzia – a disease for which there is no vaccine. The only treatment is a drug called praziquantel, which is quite effective. Lately a wave of resistance to the drug has got a lot of doctors worried prompting scientists to look for alternatives treatments. Schistosomiasis is considered one of the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs).

In the lab, some studies reported promising results. During clinical trials, however, these have fallen disappointing short.

Hopefully, the same might not apply to garlic which was found to destroy the infection in mice, according to recent study published by researchers at the Ain Shams University, Cairo. They worked with several groups of mice to study the effects of garlic during the six week trial: control, garlic control, untreated infection, and garlic-treated infection.

It’s well known that garlic has both anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. Schistosoma infection causes inflammation, so it was not surprising to see garlic oil given to the infected mice produced fewer biomarkers of inflammation.

Again, this wasn’t surprising to anyone. The real highlight, however, was that the garlic oil therapy only worked for mice in their first week of infection. If the garlic was given two to three weeks after the mice became infected showed only mild improvements. This result clearly showed the importance of inflammation in the early stages of infection. It may be that later on the worms are too strong to be affected by the garlic, and in the first week these are rendered weaker and more susceptible to immunological clearance. Though it wasn’t tested, the Egyptian researchers reckon praziquantel must become more effective under these conditions.

Let’s just hope clinical trials confirm these findings can be transferred to humans.

50 Million Year Old Sperm Found by Accident in Antarctica

Scientists have stumbled upon some incredibly old sperm in the wall of a fossilized cocoon in Antarctica. The remains of the long, thin cells represent the oldest animal sperm known to man – 50 million years old.

50-million-year-old spermatozoan entrapped on the inner surface of a cocoon wall from Antarctica (Photo: Department of Palaeobiology, Swedish Museum of Natural History)

Benjamin Bomfleur, a palaeobotanist at Stockholm’s Swedish Museum of Natural History and the lead author of the study describing this finding spotted the sperm cells as he was conducting an analysis on the inner surface of the cocoon fossil. He was using a very sensitive electron microscope and said that the discovery came as a total surprise, one that amused him thoroughly but that is also highly significant.

“A 50-million-year-old worm sperm from Antarctica?” he said between chuckles. “Who would have thought that’s possible?”

It makes sense that there are a lot of sperm inclusions in cocoon cells. The cocoons are secreted by some worms which then store sperm and eggs inside, so it seems reasonable to assume that sometimes, the sperm is stored incorrectly outside of the cocoon. But surviving for 50 million years… that’s truly remarkable! Before this, the oldest known animal sperm came from Baltic amber, 40 million years ago.

“The discovery was a big surprise, but the result of a detailed search and Steve’s (co-author Stephen McLoughlin) keen eye for the unusual. We both were aware that it may be rewarding to take a particularly close look at the cocoon fossils because they might contain “microinclusions” (like amber). It was then, Steve, who was analysing the structure of this particular cocoon fossil using a scanning electron microscope at very high magnification, first noticed the spermatozoa inclusions,” said Bomfleur.

For now, researchers don’t know exactly what worm left this sperm. Scanning electron microscope images show helical structures resembling drill-bits and beaded tails, which are highly characteristic of crayfish worms – closely related to earthworms and leeches that feed on material found on the surface of their crayfish hosts. However, scientists do have their hunches regarding what might have left this behind.

“At present detailed comparisons with living leeches are difficult. However, they do appear strikingly similar to those of ‘Branchiobdellida’ – a peculiar group of leech-like worms that is today only found living symbiotically on crayfish in the Northern Hemisphere. Quite perplexing!” Bomfleur told HT in an email interview.

Another fossilized spermatozoon fragment; the scale bar is 1 micrometre long. Dept Palaeobiol./Swedish Museum of Natural History

The structure of worm sperm cells has been studied in surprising detail in the past decades, but researchers only recently gained access to instruments that allowed them to thoroughly see the defining microstructures. Bomfleur thinks that future studies will reveal how the sperm of the worms changed as the species evolved.

“If it should turn out that we can get this information, all of a sudden we would basically unlock an entire fossil record for a group that hardly had any identifiable fossils before,” he says. Soft-bodied microorganisms that do not usually fossilize, including nematodes, have also been found preserved inside cocoons, but few researchers have studied them.

These cocoons may provide a unique window to the past, allowing an unprecedented view on worms – and yes, before you start wondering, worms are important. Jakob Vinther, who studies invertebrate evolution at the University of Bristol, UK, explains that understanding ancient worms could allow us to better understand the origin of earthworms and leeches.

“I think we might have a really interesting system here that can be sort of a hidden window to the past,” he says. “There could be a lot of potential hidden gems inside those cocoons.”

However, before your Jurassic Park dreams get amped, you should know that there’s absolutely no chance to get any DNA material from that sperm. Even if it is incredibly well preserved, it has no organic material.

“… even if they should be preserved with original ultrastructural details, the chemical make-up of the organic material will have changed from its original composition over time in the course of fossilisation––there will certainly be no extractable DNA left,” said Bomfleur.

Journal Reference: Benjamin Bomfleur, Thomas Mörs, Marco Ferraguti, Marcelo A. Reguero, Stephen McLoughlin. Fossilized spermatozoa preserved in a 50-Myr-old annelid cocoon from Antarctica. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0431


Above image: Two individuals of Harrimania planktophilus, a modern enteropneust (harrimaniid) worm. Photo: C.B. Cameron, Université de Montréal.

The tooth-lined ‘penis worm’ now gets a dentist’s handbook

One of the perks of being a writer for ZME Science is that I frequently get to feature some really amazing, yet bizarre creatures. Take for instance Ottoia prolifica (priapulidor the penis-worm as it’s also known, for obvious reasons. This phallic creature actually had a throat full of teeth which it used to munch its meaty prey, and the weirdness doesn’t stop here. It could turn its mouth inside-out and use those teeth for traction to easily move about. Talk about double standards. Now, a team has systematically studied these ancient Cambrian fossils (520 million years old) to compile a dentistry handbook to distinguish between other penis worm species. This proved to be wise, since in their compiling work the researchers at University of Cambridge have already reported what they believe to be new Ottoia species.

Above image: Two individuals of Harrimania planktophilus, a modern enteropneust (harrimaniid) worm. Photo: C.B. Cameron, Université de Montréal.

Above image: Two individuals of Harrimania planktophilus, a modern enteropneust (harrimaniid) worm. Photo: C.B. Cameron, Université de Montréal.

“Taken together, our study has allowed us to compile a ‘dentist’s handbook’ that will help paleontologists recognize a range of early teeth preserved in the fossil record,” lead author Martin Smith of the University of Cambridge said in a statement.

“As teeth are the most hardy and resilient parts of animals, they are much more common as fossils than whole soft-bodied specimens,” he explained. “But when these teeth – which are only about a millimetre long – are found, they are easily misidentified as algal spores, rather than as parts of animals. Now that we understand the structure of these tiny fossils, we are much better placed to a wide suite of enigmatic fossils.”

The authors used high-resolution imaging techniques to identify the penis worm teeth from fossils like those found in the Burgess Shale, a geologic formation in the Canadian Rockies that contains fossils of a myriad of bizarre creatures dating from the Cambrian period. Findings were reported in the journal Paleontology.

A fossil of a newly described penis worm species,  Ottoia tricuspida. Image credit: MARTIN SMITH

A fossil of a newly described penis worm species, Ottoia tricuspida. Image credit: MARTIN SMITH

Penis worms are still alive today, though they’re very hard to find since they only live in extreme environments. Check the video below for some penis worm action.

It’s easy to class the penis worm as somewhat uninteresting, scientifically-speaking, but another study published in 2012 proved this thinking wrong. Basically, a classification that orders animals in the tree of life is based on the order in which they develop a mouth and an anus as embryos. It follows that there are protostomes (from the Greek for ‘mouth first’), in which the mouth formed first, and the anus second, and deuterostomes (‘mouth second’) which describe animals where the mouth formed after the anus. Vertebrates, including humans, are deuterostomes, while invertebrates like jellyfish are protostomes. The penis worm used to be classed as a protostome as well, but researchers at University of Hawaii in Honolulu found that the  priapulid Priapus caudatus (another penis worm) develops like a deuterostome. So, because of the penis worm, the way in which the largest branch of the animal tree of life has been defined now needs revision.

Hookworm is an intestinal parasite most commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical climates of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Hookworm, one of three members of a family of parasites known as the soil-transmitted helminths (STHs), are half-inch long worms that attach themselves to the intestinal wall and feed on human blood. Image: Sabin Vaccine Institute

Fighting intestinal worm infections with its own genes

Parasitic hookworms infect half a billion people worldwide, causing severe health problems like gastrointestinal issues, cognitive impairment and stunted growth in children. As if the challenges weren’t big enough, the parasites are growing resistant to current drugs. Scientists are trying to tackle this by developing new treatments and vaccines based on the worm’s genome. A team of Caltech sequenced the genome of a hookworm species known as Ancylostoma ceylanicum and found the genes that code key proteins involved in infecting hosts. They hope blocking these proteins from being made might save millions from great sorrow and suffering.

Hookworm is an intestinal parasite most commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical climates of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  Hookworm, one of three members of a family of parasites known as the soil-transmitted helminths (STHs), are half-inch long worms that attach themselves to the intestinal wall and feed on human blood. Image: Sabin Vaccine Institute

Hookworm is an intestinal parasite most commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical climates of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Hookworm, one of three members of a family of parasites known as the soil-transmitted helminths (STHs), are half-inch long worms that attach themselves to the intestinal wall and feed on human blood. Image: Sabin Vaccine Institute

Most cases of infection happen in developing countries where access to safe drinking water is scarce. Because it’s very difficult to sanitize water sources for millions of people, the best thing we can do at the moment is fight the effects, not the causes. While Ancylostoma ceylanicum isn’t responsible for most infections in humans, the worm was appealing for research because it’s also found in rats. This way, researchers could follow the infection’s progress from start to finish.

Using state-of-the-art DNA sequencing techniques, Caltech researchers sequenced all 313 million nucleotides of the A. ceylanicum genome. Surprisingly, even though the worm’s genome is only 10% the size that of a human, it encodes far more genes – about 30,000 in total, compared to approximately 20,000-23,000 in the human genome. While this may look intimidating, those gene that count in fighting the hookworm are lesser in number.

The team led by  Paul Sternberg, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology at Caltech and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, investigated looked at the RNA involved in infections. RNA is the genetic material that is generated (or transcribed) from the DNA template of active genes and from which proteins are made. They found 900 genes that are turned on only when the worm infects its host—including 90 genes that belong to a never-before-characterized family of proteins called activation-associated secreted protein related genes, or ASPRs.

“If you go back and look at other parasitic worms, you notice that they have these ASPRs as well,” Sternberg says. “So basically we found this new family of proteins that are unique to parasitic worms, and they are related to this early infection process.” Since the worm secretes these ASPR proteins early in the infection, the researchers think that these proteins might block the host’s initial immune response—preventing the host’s blood from clotting and ensuring a free-flowing food source for the blood-sucking parasite.

Developing a drug that blocks these proteins from being generated could avoid infection. The problem is that you might need to block all 90 of them !

“It’s going to take a lot more careful study to understand the functions of these ASPRs so we can target the ones that are key regulatory molecules,” Sternberg said.

Such drugs could prove paramount in fighting hookworm infections, but if scientists know which proteins to target they can make something even better: an anti-A. ceylanicum vaccine. For example, if a person were injected with an ASPR protein vaccine before travelling to an infection-prone region, their immune system might be more prepared to successfully fend off an infection. Findings appeared in Nature Genetics.

“A parasitic infection is a balance between the parasites trying to suppress the immune system and the host trying to attack the parasite,” says Sternberg. “And we hope that by analyzing the genome, we can uncover clues that might help us alter that balance in favor of the host.”


robot lego

Worm ‘brain’ controls LEGO robot – what this means for the human brain

One of the most interesting projects in science today are the  BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe, which aim to map all the synapse connections in the human brain, or connectome, and ultimately simulate it. It’s an ambitious project with numerous challenges, but the possible benefits are well worth it. We could finally deconstruct neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s for instance, which would make finding a treatment and maybe even a cure a lot easier. The greatest insight however is a lot more philosophical: a potential definite answer to what is consciousness. It’s a question we’ve all asked one way or the other at least once in our lives, but deep down do we really want to know? I’m not sure, either. Anyway, when you’re undertaking a complex task such as mapping the human brain, you need to start simple. Analogously, you start with a worm’s brain.

A worm’s brain in a LEGO body

robot lego

The OpenWorm project is an online community project that wants to  reverse-engineer C elegans or the simple roundworm. We’ve written about the roundworm simply because it’s just a lab favorite for scientists, for obvious reasons. It breeds fast, so it’s great for studying genetics, it’s practically immortal so it’s great to test basically anything, and as far as neuroscience is concerned it has a tiny brain, which again makes it perfect. C elegans only has 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses, compared to 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapse found in a typical human brain. But creating algorithms to simulate the functions of even such a tiny winy brain is a huge task for the scientists and programmers from the UK, Ireland, Russia and the US. They’ve proved it can be done, though.

The first map of the synaptic connections, or connectome, of the brain of C. elegans in 1986 and a refined draft in 2006. Now, the OpenWorm team not only simulated the C. elegans brain, but also uploaded the simulation into lego robot that has all the equivalent limited body parts that the worm has – a sonar sensor that acts as a nose, and motors that replace its motor neurons on each side of its body. In the video below, you see what came out of it.

As you noticed, the robot moves forward or backward, and tripping the nose sensor grinds the robot to a halt. Ok, doesn’t seem impressive at first glance, but what sets it apart from your typical robot is that all these commands weren’t pre-programmed! The robot’s whole behavior is guided by algorithms that work with the worm’s connectome, labeling  sensory neurons, motor neurons, and interneurons which connect the two. For instance, stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward.

Obviously, not all of the worm’s sensors were stimulated, nor simulated. The ultimate goal is to simulate the entire C. elegans brain, but for now this is truly a powerful demonstration of what can be obtained.

Scientists have grown mutated worms that don't get drunk. mage courtesy of Jon Pierce-Shimomura of The University of Texas at Austin.

Mutant worm that doesn’t get drunk could help end alcoholism

Scientists have grown mutated worms that don't get drunk. mage courtesy of Jon Pierce-Shimomura of The University of Texas at Austin.

Scientists have grown mutated worms that don’t get drunk. mage courtesy of Jon Pierce-Shimomura of The University of Texas at Austin.

An unlikely worm might help millions of people fighting alcohol addiction. No, you won’t find it in tequila, but in the labs of neuroscientists at University of Texas at Austin who have engineered  Caenorhabditis elegans – one of the most popular animal models in science – to become insensitive to alcohol intoxication. The findings, if replicated on mice and then humans in clinical trials via a drug, could help devise treatments for  people going through alcohol withdrawal. 

The researchers achieved this feat by inserting a modified human alcohol target – any neuronal molecule that binds alcohol. The target in question was a neuronal channel called the BK channel, regulates many important functions including activity of neurons, blood vessels, the respiratory tract and bladder. However, the mutation only causes alcohol insensitivity and preserves all the other vital functions.

“This is the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal,” says corresponding author, Jon Pierce-Shimomura, assistant professor in the university’s College of Natural Sciences and Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research.

“We got pretty lucky and found a way to make the channel insensitive to alcohol without affecting its normal function,” says Pierce-Shimomura.

To find this target, Pierce-Shimomura and his team proceeded largely by trial-and-error.  Eventually, they stumbled upon a genetic modification of the channel that stopped it from activating in the presence of ethanol.

“We tried a brute force approach, testing hundreds of mutations to empirically determine which one would allow the BK channel to function normally [while still] preventing alcohol from activating it.”

[RELATED] A gene mutation linked to alcohol abuse found

Now you can’t get drunk. Is that a good thing?

How does a drunk worm look like in the first place? Well, when C. elegans has more than it can handle, it slows its crawling and moves less from side to side. The worm also stops laying eggs, which builds up in their bodies and thus proved to be a great marker to assess whether or not the mutation worked. Even so, alcohol is a very tricky chemical. Unlike other drugs like cocaine that works its magic on specific regions of the brain, alcohol seems to be all over the place, targeting many regions of the brain with various effects on the body. As such, various other aspects of alcohol addiction, such as tolerance, craving and the symptoms of withdrawal, may be influenced by different alcohol targets.

[NOW READ] Origin of alcohol consumption traced back 10 millions years ago

Will we get to see a drug in the future the kind James Bond uses to drink his enemies under the table soon? Maybe, maybe not. The researchers first need to investigate the findings further by replicating the experiment in mice, which are far more complex organisms than worms. If such a drug worked on humans too, and with manageable side effects (mutated alcohol targets might cause some serious backfiring considering they’re involved in other important bodily functions), then it could become a serious tool for curving alcohol addiction.

“Our findings provide exciting evidence that future pharmaceuticals might aim at this portion of the alcohol target to prevent problems in alcohol abuse disorders,” says Pierce-Shimomura. “However, it remains to be seen which aspects of these disorders would benefit.”

The findings were reported in The Journal of Neuroscience.

Yoda purpurata

Meet the Yoda worm – a creature living deep, deep in the ocean

Yoda purpurata

A curious specimen which bares a resemblance to the iconic Jedi master Yoda, due to its large lips on either side of the creature’s head reminiscent of the Jedi’s ears, has been recently collected from far, far away in the ocean depths. Upon closer inspection it along with two other creatures have been recognized as distinct species.


Mhmhmmm sea creature say you?

Dubbed Yoda purpurata, the tiny deep-sea acorn worm was discovered 1.5 miles beneath the Atlantic, after a remotely operated submersible collected the specimen during a research mission along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between Iceland and the Azores. The official translation of the worm’s name is “purple Yoda,” with the second part of the moniker representing the creature’s color.

“Shallow water acorn worms live in burrows and are rarely seen, whereas deep sea species live on the seafloor, leaving spiral traces of poo that resemble crop circles. These traces have been seen in fossil form, but until recently, nobody knew what produced them,” , Douglas Main of OurAmazingPlanet explained.

“Scientists are interested in these deep sea species because they are close to the evolutionary link between vertebrates and invertebrates,” he added. “In other words, the force is strong with them.”

Now, this isn’t the oddest name an animal species has received. Other notable mentions include a fish parasite named after Bob Marley; a horse fly named after Beyoncé and a trio of slime-mold beetles named after George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.

Findings were published in the journal Invertebrate Biology.

via Guardian

The Caenorhabditis elegans or C. elegans common ground worm.

Worms show that Mars colonization is possible

There are numerous challenges that come with outer Earth colonization of distant planets like Mars, or our neighboring moon, and one of the major issues scientists have addressed is reproduction. Part of a  recently published study, scientists have tracked the development of worm cultures in space in an experiment designed to study how micro-gravity and radiation has affected them.

Back in 2006, researchers blasted off to the ISS 4,000 specimens of Caenorhabditis elegans (C elegans), a soil-living worm used extensively in various researchers through out the years. Until recently, 12 generation of the nematode have been successfully bred, passing from egg to adulthood, which reproduced very much in the same way like on Earth.

The Caenorhabditis elegans  or C. elegans common ground worm.

The Caenorhabditis elegans or C. elegans common ground worm.

Remarkably enough, C elegans is very much similar to humans. Alright, let me explain. It has 20,000 protein-coding genes, more or less the same amount as humans, which also roughly possess the same functions as ours. Two thousand of these genes have a role in promoting muscle function and 50 to 60 per cent of these have very obvious human counterparts. In 1998, the creature commonly found in the soil of your backyard was the first multi-celullar being to have its genome completely sequenced.

“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,” study lead author Nathaniel Szewczyk, of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.

“As a result, C. elegans is a cost-effective option for discovering and studying the biological effects of deep space missions,” Szewczyk added. “Ultimately, we are now in a position to be able to remotely grow and study an animal on another planet.”

The worms were bred using a compact automated culturing system that can be monitored remotely, which transferred a subset of worms to fresh food every month, filming the worms’ progress as they went. Since the results were monitored in real time directly from Earth, it spared scientists the nerves which would’ve been tensed to oblivion resulting from data solely dependent on a sample re-entry.

The researchers conclude that C. elegans shows that man could survive as an interplaneteray species, and provides invaluable data for further research regarding radiation exposure and muscle atrofiation, the most pressing issues at hand as far as manned space exploration is concerned.

“While it may seem surprising, many of the biological changes that happen during spaceflight affect astronauts and worms, and in the same way,” Szewczyk said.

C. elegans has gone farther away than any worm on Earth, and its journey is far from over. Considering the success of this study, the researchers are considering sending a batch as far as on to the Mars surface. This would provide genuine readings of just how dangerous the high radiation levels found in deep space, and on the Red Planet’s surface, are to animal life. We’re still waiting for some results from the cephalopods  study on the ISS, where baby squids were brought into space for experiments.

“Worms allow us to detect changes in growth, development, reproduction and behavior in response to environmental conditions such as toxins or in response to deep space missions,” Szewczyk said. “Given the high failure rate of Mars missions, use of worms allows us to safely and relatively cheaply test spacecraft systems prior to manned missions.”

The researchers’ results were published in a recent edition of the Royal Society journal.

image credit