It may be hard to believe, but the brain, nervous system and genome of a particular type of worm is similar to that of humans. And that’s why several students at a South Coast college are conducting research with these kinds of worms to better understand how humans make decisions.
The students have been selected to present their research at a conference in Europe.
Renae Ellis, a biology student at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo, puts on her latex gloves as she gets ready to begin an experiment. A bunch of tiny worms – each one only a millimeter long – are eating their food, which is E. coli bacteria, on a petri dish. She then prepares to place a chemical dangerous to these worms called 2-nonanone on the dish.
“Look through the microscope. Put it far enough away and drop it down to where it won’t touch the food,” she says.
She’s testing the worms’ decision-making skills.
"And start the timer to count how many worms will leave the plate over the course of 45 minutes," Ellis says.
These little worms have an important decision to make, says faculty advisor and biology professor Gareth Harris. Do they stay on the food or do they leave?
“If I stay on the food for too long, I’m dead. If I leave the food, I’m at least not dead based on smelling the dangerous cue and being exposed to that, but I might chance the fact that I may starve,” he says.
The worms are making complex decisions – much like humans do. Ellis and three of her fellow biology students are studying these worms -- looking at both genetics and environmental factors -- in hopes of learning more about how decision-making happens in humans and other complicated organisms. And they will be presenting their research at a prestigious conference in Germany in the coming months.
But why worms? Harris says the students use worms called C. elegans because their brains are surprisingly similar to humans.
“Their nervous system is a lot simpler and lot more manageable than humans, yet based on their genome and based on the types of signals that they use to communicate within the brain – a lot of that is very similar and that’s providing an avenue to understand complex brains by using simple ones,” he says.
Ellis says she enjoying working with worms.
“I think they have a really cool personality. They’re a lot of fun to work with. I really enjoy that they are translucent. So, you’re able to see through them and you’re able to see them eat. It’s hard to not like them,” she says.
Her research focuses on how worms from different places around the world differ in how they make decisions. So far, she’s found that worms from Ohio leave the food faster and those from Europe leave slower.
That may be due in part to food preference depending on where the worms are from… just like the way people make decisions.
“So, it can really show in humans where it’s like ‘I might like cheeseburgers but this person might not. So, I might run away from cheeseburgers.’ It can help people really learn more about the human genome,” Ellis says.
Student Chase Khedmatgozar is looking at how drugs target the brain and affect decision-making. He’s found that alcohol and lithium make the worms leave the food faster.
“We don’t know the mechanisms behind how the drugs affect our brain. So, if we can use the worm to find some of those mechanisms, then we can apply that to humans and therefore probably attack some diseases better than the drugs that we have right now,” he says.
Another focal point is studying how key signals in the brain which allow nerves to communicate -- known as neuropeptides -- play a significant role in decision-making.
Student Alexandria Galindo is experimenting with worms which are missing genes that control different neuropeptides.
“I actually found one worm that left faster than the average and then one worm that left slower than the average. It just leads me to believe that the gene that is missing in each of those affects the decision-making,” she says.
These three research projects that involve using worms to understand human decision-making caught the attention of prestigious scientists around the world. The four Cal State Channel Islands biology students are among only about 400 undergrads across the globe who were selected to present their projects at the World Congress on Undergraduate Research in Germany.