Bioethics Blogs

Creative Minds: The Worm Tissue-ome Teaches Developmental Biology for Us All

Caption: An adult Caenorhabditis elegans, 5 days
Credit: Coleen Murphy, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

In the nearly 40 years since Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sydney Brenner proposed using a tiny, transparent soil worm called Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for biomedical research, C. elegans has become one of the most-studied organisms on the planet. Researchers have determined that C. elegans has exactly 959 cells, 302 of which are neurons. They have sequenced and annotated its genome, developed an impressive array of tools to study its DNA, and characterized the development of many of its tissues.

But what researchers still don’t know is exactly how all of these parts work together to coordinate this little worm’s response to changes in nutrition, environment, health status, and even the aging process. To learn more, 2015 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award winner Coleen Murphy of Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, has set out to analyze which genes are active, or transcribed, in each of the major tissues of adult C. elegans, building the framework for what’s been dubbed the C. elegans “tissue-ome.”

Although C. elegans and humans diverged from a common ancestor more than 300 million years ago, they share about 40 percent of their protein-coding DNA in common. These genetic similarities, along with the ease of manipulating the C. elegans genome and its relatively short life span, has made it a great system for unraveling the molecular mechanisms that underlie development, behavior, and aging in a multi-cellular organism.

However, researchers have run into difficulties when they’ve attempted to conduct cell-specific analyses of gene transcription in various types of C.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.