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article imageHow worms use chemicals to communicate

By Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins     Jan 27, 2012 in Science
The Caenorhabditis elegans species of tiny, transparent roundworms, favorite experimental subjects in biology labs, were found by researchers to communicate through molecular messages, in "sentences" made of chemical fragments.
The study at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) at Cornell provided evidence this chemical "worm speak" organizes the nematodes' biological and social functioning, reported about the findings published January 10 in PLoS Biology.
The BTI and Caltech researchers hope their discovery will help ongoing worldwide efforts to develop treatments for people and crops infected with nematodes, also known as roundworms; the pests are making over 20 percent of the world's population sick and destroying many crops, according to the team.
Co-author Frank Schroeder of BTI explained,
"Learning about how nematodes communicate opens up new possibilities for prevention of nematode infection in humans and nematode control in agricultural settings."
Lead author Stephan von Reuss of BTI elaborated,
"Using the worms' own language, we may be able to disrupt their development and reproduction or attract them to lethal environments."
The the lab-friendly Caenorhabditis elegans worms are a popular model for studying the effects of chemical signals on behavior and development; previous research by the team in 2008 revealed that these nematodes attract sexual contact using chemical signals, leading the researchers to speculate the worms function using a chemical language.
To identify the components of the worms' chemical language, the team compared chemicals produced by normal wild "talking" worms with those produced by their "mute" laboratory counterparts with signaling defects; the results indicated the worms combine molecular building blocks into simple "sentences" two or three blocks long that convey simple, definite meanings such as "scatter, "disperse," and "come here."
Now that the researchers understand some phrases of this worm language, they plan to figure out exactly how the worms produce and decode the distinct chemical signals they use to communicate, then learn whether other species use similar molecular signaling languages to organize biological functions and social behaviors.
More about Worms, Chemistry, chemical communication, Biology, zoology
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