Every two years, the community of worm researchers meets in Los Angeles for the International C. elegans Meeting. Sometimes people are surprised that there are 1500 people that are willing to come from all over the world to the UCLA campus to talk about worm science for days on end, but it’s actually a pretty common feature of a scientist’s life, and worm researchers are no exception.
What do we do at these meetings? One of the main reasons people go is to keep up to date with the latest work in the field, so a lot of the time is spent watching other researchers speak about their work in lecture theatres.
This is nice because you can often hear about work in progress before it’s been published in journals (which are the main way that scientific results are communicated). It’s also an excellent opportunity for more informal interactions. This is where you can learn about which techniques work well and which are a pain to use. You can brainstorm with your friends or people you just met and if you happen to come up with an idea you’re both excited about you might even initiate a collaboration. These more informal interactions are difficult to reproduce without a face-to-face meeting. That’s why scientific meetings are important and why they probably won’t go away despite the increasing ease of communicating online.
Meetings are also a good way of fostering a community spirit, and what better way to do that than through humour? At the end of the meeting Curtis Loer and Morris Maduro put together a fantastic Worm Variety Show. The best part is that it’s available online (warning, extremely nerdy jokes that often require abnormal familiarity with worms and/or genetics to understand!). Perhaps the best part is The Lab, a spoof of The Office (at 52:28 in the video) which you’ll probably appreciate if you’ve spent much time working in a biology lab. Enjoy!
I hope you’ve been enjoying watching videos of crawling worms. With some patience, you may have even already found some egg laying events. If so, good work and thanks!
You may be wondering though, how are the eggs actually laid? What does it look like? You can’t make out much detail in the tracking videos where we need to be able to see the whole worm. The eggs basically just look like little ovals that pop instantaneously out of the worm. But with a higher powered microscope it’s possible to zoom in and make out details of the worm’s vulva and even to see the individual cells that make up the embryo in the egg!
Here’s a video made by my Medical Research Council colleague Robyn Branicky that shows very clearly just what laying a worm egg looks like.
Even the adult worm has fewer than 1000 cells, but it develops these quite complex structures that can perform an amazing variety of functions. I find it beautiful.
We need the public’s help in observing the behaviour of tiny nematode worms. When you classify on wormwatchlab.org you’re shown a video of a worm wriggling around. The aim of the game is to watch and wait for the worm to lay eggs, and to hit the ‘z’ key when they do. It’s very simple and strangely addictive. By watching these worms lay eggs, you’re helping to collect valuable data about genetics that will assist medical research.
The MRC have built tracking microscopes to record these videos of crawling worms. A USB microscope is mounted on a motorised stage connected to a computer. When the worm moves, the computer analyses the changing image and commands the stage to move to re-centre the worm in the field of view. Because the trackers work without supervision, they can run eight of them in parallel to collect a lot of video! It’s these movies that we need the public to help classify.
By watching movies of the nematode worms, we can understand how the brain works and how genes affect behaviour. The idea is that if a gene is involved in a visible behaviour, then mutations that break that gene might lead to detectable behavioural changes. The type of change gives us a hint about what the affected gene might be doing. Although it is small and has far fewer cells than we do, the worm used in these studies (called C. elegans) has almost as many genes as we do! We share a common ancestor with these worms, so many of their genes are closely related to human genes. This presents us with the opportunity to study the function of genes that are important for human brain function in an animal that is easier to handle, great for microscopy and genetics, and has a generation time of only a few days. It’s all quite amazing!