Posted by: Footler PJ1 MAR 2012
The news that tiny amounts of alcohol can more than double the lifespan of Caenorhabditis elegans reminded me that this tiny worm has been widely used as a model for research into genetics, human development, ageing and disease.
C elegans is a 1mm long, free-living soil nematode. It was the first multicellular animal to have its genome completely sequenced and its entire pattern of connectivity determined. It shares many of the cellular and molecular structures and control pathways of higher organisms, while its transparency enables the study of individual cells in an intact living organism.
With a life span of two to three weeks making for a short experimental cycle, C elegans has been used to study subjects as varied as programmed cell death, leukaemia, nicotine addiction, meiosis, the function of specific genes and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Recent research found that it gets naturally occurring viral infections, a discovery that may help scientists study the way viruses and their hosts interact. Samples of C elegans were used in an International Space Station project to explore the effects of zero gravity on muscle development. They are tough creatures too — one sample survived the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
C elegans has been used in work leading to three Nobel prizes so far. In his 2002 prizewinner’s address, Sydney Brenner, who spent over 30 years using the animal to research developmental biology and neurology, called it “nature’s gift to science”.