21 May 2014

An elegant little worm


Wild-type C. elegans hermaphrodite
 stained with a fluorescent dye
Caenorhabditis elegans, despite its long name, isn’t a creature you’d take much notice of. It’s only one milimetre long and lives in the soil, feeding on bacteria. It’s a transparent worm-like creature* that has neither lungs nor heart. Most of the species are hermaphrodite, having both female and male characteristics.

One of the things that makes C. elgans interesting to researchers is that it has a wonderfully uncomplicated nervous system, only 302 neurons in total. (Compare this to the 100,000 neurons of a fruit fly, or the 1 million neurons of a cockroach, or the billions of neurons in mammals.) The function of its whole neural network has been mapped. This makes it fairly easy to study and use in experiments.

It also has relatively few cells, and a genetic make up that is simple enough to have made C. elegans the first multi-cellular organism (after single-celled bacteria) to have it’s genome mapped.

To add to its charms, C. elegans is cheap and easy to look after, harmless to people, has a very short reproduction time and can even be frozen and thawed without coming to any harm.

Despite it’s tiny size and apparent simplicity, C. elegans can be used to study various aspects of aging and cell death, addictions, sleep and muscle function. It has also been used on the space station to research the effects of zero gravity.

C. elegans is an example of the inter-relatedness of all living things, both in its structure and in its role in the ecology of the soil. It is also incredibly useful to scientists trying to understand more complex organisms. To me, this little worm demonstrates that behind evolution is not only a creator, but a creator who is benevolent, who provides all that we need to investigate and understand the creation. He has left the construction manual open for us to read, if we will.

Images from wikipedia: Caenorhabditis elegans
*Strictly speaking C. elegans is a nematode.

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I'm a writer, medical graduate, wife, mother, and follower of Christ, with an interest in a wide range of topics and ideas. I live in Western Australia.