HARTFORD, CT, February 12, 2014 – In the Beginning was the Worm: Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite was a 2003 book about the seminal work of Sydney Brenner, a British geneticist who began studying the roundworm in the 1960s. Decades later, thousands of researchers are feeding off the work of Brenner, who completed a gene map and sequencing of the roundworm, a creature author Andrew Brown called “the most completely understood animal in history.”
One such scientist is William Mohler, associate professor in the genetics and developmental biology department at the University of Connecticut Health Center. Mohler discussed his research -- mapping the nervous system of the roundworm or C. elegans -- during a Common Hour presentation Tuesday. A graduate of Harvard and Stanford University, Mohler has assembled a multinational team “to unwiggle the worm” or, more specifically, to discover how individual cells are assembled to make a functioning nervous system.
As opposed to other more complex animals, the roundworm is a near-perfect specimen to study. It has just 959 cells, its neuronal network is always wired the same way, and it’s hermaphroditic or able to mate with itself. Other factors that make the roundworm conducive to research, said Mohler, is that it’s very sensitive to touch, it has a robust and complex engineering system and genetic manipulation is very easy.
Mohler acknowledged that Brenner’s work was pioneering, but that much can still be learned about the nervous system of the roundworm, especially given the high-powered microscopes that allow scientists to see the building blocks of life that they couldn’t see in Brenner’s day.
Like others in his field, Mohler agrees that the roundworm is almost ideal to study because it takes only 3.5 days for a zygote to become a reproductive adult. “It’s a perfectly reproducible specimen in that every worm develops in the same way,” said Mohler. “And with microscopy, we can see the tip of its nose.”
More than its nose, however, researchers can see the intricate parts of the roundworm’s nerve cells – the axons (the long, slender projection of a nerve cell), and the dendrites. Axons are different from dendrites in shape, length and function (dendrites typically receive signals while axons usually transmit them). In other words, axons and dendrites facilitate the movement of information.
Along with advances in microscopy, digitization has made the examination of the inner workings of the roundworm even easier. Thus, using both tools at his disposal, Mohler explained that his research team will be able to “explore the nervous system of the roundworm using data that existed 30 years ago.”
“We can look at cells that are ancestors of ancestors of ancestors,” said Mohler. “We can see when a cell is being born and the differentiations of several types of cells early on.”
The point of his research (called WormGuides, which stands for Global Understanding in Dynamic Embryonic Systems), Mohler said, is that researchers will be better able to understand how it is that cells are the building blocks of life and can be turned into circuits and used to make decisions.
“This is the first system where we know the most about how individual cells are able to make a functioning nervous system.”
In conclusion, Mohler urged any Trinity student who is interested in joining his team, to contact him at the UConn Health Center.