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C. elegans : the model system for linking developmental studies with genetics

If biologists wanted to research how nicotine dependence develops in the body, how lipids are regulated, or observe the attractant or repellant properties of certain odors, they would clearly need to design three very different experiments. However, they might only need one object of study: C . elegans . The nematode Caenorhabditis elegans was brought into the focus of mainstream biological research by Dr. Sydney Brenner. Since 1963, Dr. Brenner and scientists worldwide have used this animal as a model system to study various physiological and developmental mechanisms.

C . elegans is a free-living organism found in soil. It is easy to culture this organism on agar plates (10,000 worms/plate), it feeds on Escherichia coli (another long-term resident of biological laboratories worldwide), and therefore, it can be readily grown and maintained in a laboratory. The biggest asset of this nematode is its transparency, which helps researchers to observe and monitor changes within the animal with ease. It is also a simple organism with fewer than 1,000 cells and a genome of 20,000 genes. It shows chromosomal organization of DNA into five pairs of autosomes plus a pair of sex chromosomes, making it an ideal candidate to study genetics. Since every cell can be visualized and identified, this organism is useful for studying cellular phenomena like cell-cell interactions, cell-fate determinations, cell division, apoptosis, and intracellular transport.

Another tremendous asset is the short life cycle of this worm ( [link] ). It takes only 3 days to achieve the “egg to adult to daughter egg;” therefore, tracking genetic changes is easier in this animal. The total life span of C . elegans is 2 to 3 weeks; hence, age-related phenomena are easy to observe. Another feature that makes C . elegans an excellent experimental model system is that the position and number of the 959 cells present in adult hermaphrodites of this organism is constant. This feature is extremely significant when studying cell differentiation, cell-cell communication, and apoptosis. Lastly, C . elegans is also amenable to genetic manipulations using molecular methods, rounding off its usefulness as a model system.

Biologists worldwide have created information banks and groups dedicated to research using C . elegans . Their findings have led, for example, to better understandings of cell communication during development, neuronal signaling and insight into lipid regulation (which is important in addressing health issues like the development of obesity and diabetes). In recent years, studies have enlightened the medical community with a better understanding of polycystic kidney disease. This simple organism has led biologists to complex and significant findings, growing the field of science in ways that touch the everyday world.

Photo a shows transparent worm about a millimeter in length. Illustration B shows the life cycle of C. elegans, which begins when the egg hatches, releasing a L1 juvenile. After 12 hours the L1 juvenile transforms into an L2 juvenile. After 7 hours the L2 juvenile transforms into an L3 juvenile. After another 7 hours the L3 juvenile transforms into an L4 juvenile. After 14 hours the L4 juvenile transforms into an adult. The hermaphroditic adult mates with another adult to produce fertilized eggs which hatch, completing the cycle.
(a) This light micrograph shows Caenorhabditis elegans . Its transparent adult stage consists of exactly 959 cells. (b) The life cycle of C . elegans has four juvenile stages (L1 through L4) and an adult stage. Under ideal conditions, the nematode spends a set amount of time at each juvenile stage, but under stressful conditions, it may enter a dauer state that does not age. The worm is hermaphroditic in the adult state, and mating of two worms produces a fertilized egg. (credit a: modification of work by “snickclunk”/Flickr: credit b: modification of work by NIDDK, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Biology for rice univeristy ebio 213. OpenStax CNX. Jul 16, 2013 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11544/1.3
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