You work with WHAT?! Common misconceptions about studying nematodes

We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glow-worm”- Winston Churchill

Well, if Mr. Churchill is right, and we are all worms, I am most definitely a nematode.

Now you may be thinking, “Emily, you’ve lost it. A nematode? A toad is most definitely NOT a worm”.  Don’t worry; I haven’t totally lost it (in this instance, anyways). Nematode is another name for the roundworm, which account for over 80% of the individual animals on the planet! In our lab at the University of Washington and at labs all around the world, the nematode is very close to our hearts. This is because we study one particular species of nematode called Caenorhabditis elegans. Scientific names can often be a mouthful, so most shorten it to simply C. elegans.

When I tell people that I work on worms, I usually get a look of disgust, confusion, or skepticism.  But let’s get something straight- C. elegans are not what you are picturing. They don’t look like this:

Source: fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au

Source: fir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.au

Or this:

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And unfortunately, they don’t look like this either:

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In fact, C. elegans are very hard to see without a microscope. Adults are only about 1 millimeter long. To put that into perspective, a single C. elegans worm could be picked up by a single eyelash! Having a hard time picturing it? Here are a couple of views of C. elegans:

Crawling C. elegans hermaphrodite worm

Crawling C. elegans hermaphrodite worm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caenorhabditis elegans

Caenorhabditis elegans (Photo credit: AJC1)

Ok, ok… but who in their right mind decided studying these tiny worms was a good idea?

Well, studying diseases in larger animals like mice and rats isn’t easy: they take a long time to develop and grow, are expensive to maintain, and are complicated in design. In the 1960’s, a scientist named Sydney Brenner suggested that studying C. elegans would improve on a lot of these problems: C. elegans only live for a few weeks in the lab, are cheap and easy to maintain, and it is easy to manipulate their genes! To put the simplicity of C. elegans into perspective, while the human body has trillions of cells, C. elegans only have around 1000 cells! Today, along with fruit flies, C. elegans is frequently used as a model organism for studying disease and cellular processes.

In the 40+ years that C. elegans have been used in scientific research, they have greatly contributed to the advancement of science, particularly in the study of aging. Many genes that make C. elegans live longer in the laboratory have been identified as important in the aging process in humans and other mammals. Additionally, C. elegans are a great model  for studying human disease, as more than half of the genes known to be involved in human disease are also found in C. elegans. For example, models of neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s have been developed, and are currently being utilized to better understand and development treatments for these diseases.

In the last 15 years, THREE Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists for their work in C. elegans!

Hopefully, the next time that you hear a scientist mention that they study worms, you will not necessarily picture them digging around in the dirt and looking at earthworms. While we have all been known to dig in the dirt from time to time, C. elegans researchers are tackling tough research problems from behind a microscope, using this tractable and inexpensive model organism!

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And now for some great references to find out more about C. elegans!

A Short History of C. elegans Research

Worms in SPACE?!

Wormatlas: A bit dense for the nonscientist, but great images!

Introduction to C. elegans

 

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Hydrogen sulfide: A smelly, deadly gas… but could it save lives?

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Take a moment and imagine a street in Paris in the 18th century, much like this depiction of “Place du Havre, Paris, Rain” by Camille Pissarro. The first things you’ll notice: it’s beautiful, romantic, bustling. But what you might not notice is that is also very, VERY smelly.

Back then, sewer systems were extremely unsophisticated, and the smell of rotten eggs spilled into the streets. Even more, if a person were to go too far below ground, they would likely find themselves dead in minutes. The culprit? Hydrogen sulfide, a gas that smells of rotten eggs and is produced when bacteria breakdown the organic material found in sewage.

Thankfully for us, modern-day sewers have come a long way since the 18th century, but so has our understanding of this smelly, toxic gas. In the last 10-15 years, scientists have found that hydrogen sulfide is important for cell-to-cell communication in our bodies. Additionally, exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide has beneficial effects on many different organisms. For example, plants exposed to hydrogen sulfide grow  better, and worms grown in hydrogen sulfide are long-lived! Remarkably, in rats and mice, treatment with hydrogen sulfide also protects against damage from devastating injuries including stroke, heart attack, and severe blood loss. With so many recent discoveries highlighting the benefits of hydrogen sulfide, you may be asking yourself:

How can something that is so deadly also be beneficial?

The answer lies in the dosage. While scientists are still working on understanding HOW the gas functions in the body, we do know that hydrogen sulfide has beneficial effects at low levels, but toxic effects at high levels. The importance of dosage on human health is not just specific to smelly hydrogen sulfide. In fact, just about every substance that we come in contact with throughout the day has different effects depending on the dosage: even drinking water can be harmful if you consume too much! (Water intoxication: it’s a real thing! Read about it here.)

An easy way to think about dosage effects is the common saying (and the Kelly Clarkson pop hit):

What Doesn't Kill You, Makes You Stronger

In other words, exposure to low doses can activate cellular responses that provide protection to the cell, making it “stronger”. However, these cellular responses may be insufficient at higher doses, ultimately resulting in damage and death. 

There is a lot to learn about hydrogen sulfide before we begin using it regularly as a therapeutic. For those who work in environments where hydrogen sulfide poses a serious occupational threat, utilizing the gas for medical treatment still sounds extremely dangerous and irresponsible. By improving our understanding of the cellular effects of hydrogen sulfide at different doses, scientists can minimize potential dangers of hydrogen sulfide as a therapeutic. Ultimately, the potential benefits of hydrogen sulfide in agriculture and human health make it an important and exciting research field for the future.

If you’re interested in learning more about hydrogen sulfide, you can visit our lab’s website here!

This blog post originated as an exercise for my SciFund Challenge Outreach course, but I liked it so much that I thought it’d make a great first blog post! Let me know what you think!