Junior year, or maybe sophomore. I can’t recall the exact sequence of my high school science classes. Physic-Bio-Chem-Physics, or Bio-Bio-Physics-Chem maybe? All I recall is that we were in the basement, in one of the fancy new science rooms. My biology teacher announced that we’d be doing something other than just memorizing terminology that semester. Something perhaps much more interesting.
Properly know as Caenorhabditis elegans, commonly referred to as C. elegans, generalized to roundworms, and misheard by highschool students who aren’t really paying attention as “see elegance”.
Whenever I hear the name, I recall that class and my fated experiment. The latest spotting is in one of those “this time we really are going to figure out the brain” articles.
The last time I saw C. Elegans, it was through a microscope while drugging through our biology class assignment: come up with an experiment involving C.Elegans, and, well, do it.
Here is what I can recall. C. Elegan females are actually hermaphrodites. They can do the whole reproduction thing themselves.
If that’s the case why do the males exist? They typically compromise a very small percentage of C. Elegans. So, to put it is as my 16-year-old self would, what’s the deal with that?
The research highlighted in the Times article takes a difference approach. Unconcerned with the hermaphrodite to male ratio, those researchers investigated the worm’s nervous system. C. Elegans have a relatively simple nervous system (302 neurons). Nothing you’d call a brain. Maybe a ganglia, I’m not quite sure how the terms are used. Either way C. Elegans is a relatively simple animal to attempt something you can’t quite do with humans. Which is to sit there and map out literally every connection. It seems that’s exactly what has been done, over the course of a decade or so. The idea being that being able to study C. Elegans in excruciating detail may give researchers some sort of upsight regarding the working of animals with larger, less tractable nervous systems (read: humans). That seems to be the general idea for a lot of neuroscience research. Another popular animal to work with is some sort of sea slug that apparently has giant (relative term here) axons that are easy to work with.
That’s all well and good, but there’s other research of the roundworm out there. Like my own thorough analysis of exactly what the deal was with those male worms.
Let us compare the two research programs:
The very inner workings of the entire nervous system.
The ratio of males to
females hermaphrodites, and how it changes depending on a few easily measured variables such as amount of food present.
Painstakingly cataloguing neural connections and functions over the course of years.
Painstakingly counting worms on an agar dish over the course of a month during biology class.
The mapping out of many neural functions. Perhaps providing a glimpse of how our own neural system development.
There aren’t that many males around no matter what.
As you can see here, Bashir (1996) really set the standard for C. Elegans research.