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). 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 (Figure 1). 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.
A number of common parasitic nematodes serve as prime examples of parasitism. These animals exhibit complex lifecycles that involve multiple hosts, and they can have significant medical and veterinary impacts. Humans may become infected by Dracunculus medinensis, known as guinea worms, when they drink unfiltered water containing copepods (Figure 2). Hookworms, such as Ancyclostoma and Necator, infest the intestines and feed on the blood of mammals, especially in dogs, cats, and humans. Trichina worms (Trichinella) are the causal organism of trichinosis in humans, often resulting from the consumption of undercooked pork; Trichinella can infect other mammalian hosts as well. Ascaris, a large intestinal roundworm, steals nutrition from its human host and may create physical blockage of the intestines. The filarial worms, such as Dirofilaria and Wuchereria, are commonly vectored by mosquitoes, which pass the infective agents among mammals through their blood-sucking activity. Dirofilaria immitis, a blood-infective parasite, is the notorious dog heartworm species. Wuchereria bancrofti infects the lymph nodes of humans, resulting in the non-lethal but deforming condition called elephantiasis, in which parts of the body become swelled to gigantic proportions due to obstruction of lymphatic drainage and inflammation of lymphatic tissues.