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March 11, 2002

Caenorhabditis elegansC. elegans for short — is a tiny worm, slightly smaller than an eyelash. It normally lives in compost heaps, but, in the last 30 years, it has moved into the research laboratory where it has become a valuable animal model for exploring the basic processes involved in the development and behavior of multi-cellular organisms, including humans. The tiny worm is made up of less than 1,000 cells, yet it possesses a nervous system, digestive tract, musculature and reproductive system. Scientists have completely mapped its genome and the stages in its development. By introducing mutations in the worm's genome and then observing the consequences, researchers are beginning to learn the basic links between gene expression and an organism's behavior.

Not only is the worm extremely simple, it is also transparent. All its internal organs are clearly visible. This allows researchers to use genetic engineering to insert DNA sequences that produce green, blue and red fluorescent proteins. These fluorescent labels become clearly visible when living worms are viewed under different colored lights. By inserting label sequences in different genes, the researchers can identify the specific cells where the gene is expressed by the bright, fluorescent glow.

Research involving C. elegans has already made some major contributions to understanding human biology. The genes that regulate a critical process called programmed cell death in both worms and humans were first found in C. elegans. Similarly, the genes that control the growth of axons - the thin wire-like extensions that neurons produce to make connections with other neurons - were discovered initially in the worm and then later in humans.

Exploring the Miller Worm Farm
The sign on the laboratory door reads "Miller Worm Farm." David Miller's laboratory is at the center of a growing number of laboratories on the Vanderbilt campus where C. elegans are studied. The worm, as it is fondly known, shares many fundamental cellular processes with human beings. By studying a simpler "model" organism like the worm, he and his colleagues are learning more about the processes at work in more complex organisms, including humans.
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Parkinsonís, drug abuse connection
Could a lowly worm offer new insights to a disease as complex as Parkinson's? Randy Blakely and his colleagues at Vanderbilt's Center for Molecular Neuroscience believe so. They have turned to C. elegans to study the death of dopamine neurons - the same type of nerve cells that die in humans suffering from Parkinson's disease.
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Identification of worm sex signals reveal proteins can lead dual lives
David Greenstein and Michael Miller didn't set out to discover a new birth control method for microscopic worms. But, in identifying the biological signal that sperm use to "talk" to eggs in C. elegans they may have done just that. Their discovery that a well-known protein unexpectedly plays such a totally new role is forcing biologists to ask themselves if other well known proteins may be leading dual lives.
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Studies ranging from special pores in cell membranes to the effects of drugs on nerve cells
A number of other scientists at Vanderbilt have begun using C. elegans in their research. Several are using the worm to study different aspects of the molecular structure, function and regulation of special pores in the cell membrane called ion channels. Another is investigating the way that drugs of abuse,interfere with the normal function of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
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Students feed the worms and learn about research
Two undergraduate students, Kim Dalton and Carolyn Maune, have worked in the Worm Farm for three years. They have been responsible for feeding the worms and keeping them healthy. In addition, they are conducting an experiment that may help shed new light on the function of one of the worm's genes.
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Worm facts
Learn more about the elegant worm, including its size, color, habitat, food, life cycle, genome, development, structure, nervous system and movement.

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Making worms that glow in the dark
It all began with a fluorescent jellyfish found in the Pacific Northwest. A group of scientists identified the fluorescent protein that it uses, cloned the gene that produces it. When they inserted this gene into other organisms, researchers found that it continued to function, creating fluorescent protein in the living bodies of plants and animals. This has become a powerful tool for cell biologists.

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The C. elegans world wide web server is communications hub of the C. elegans research community. In addition to technical information, it includes background information on the animal for non-scientists and written material from Sydney Brenner explaining his reasons for advocating the use of the nematode as an animal model.

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