Researchers at Texas Tech University are conducting studies on a nematode (worm) known as Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) to gain understanding on how this worm swims, with the hopes that it may provide useful insights to applications such as drug screening or designing smart soft robots.
You might ask the question, why study a one millimeter-long worm? This small worm can provide insights into human health and disease as well as design of artificial systems.
Caenorhabdities elegans has long been studied in biology and medical facilities. This little worm has been so productive in providing vital scientific information that it has led to three Nobel Prize winning studies. C. elegans has given up its genetics, behavior, neurobiology, and disease states. The worm’s genome has been completely mapped and it is currently known that at least 50 percent of those genes are similar to those found in humans.
C. elegans’ nervous system has been found to contain 302 neurons with 7,000 connections. A library exists that contains mutants where genes have been knocked out. This has made C. elegans an important model for drug testing diseases such as Parkinson’s.
The idea is to study the worm’s primary behavior — swimming — to better understand its motion in different environments. Different drugs can be administered to determine their impact on the worm’s swimming motion with the hopes of developing a sensitive screen to test various compounds that affect nerve cells or muscles and provide information on how to alleviate symptoms in humans.
According to Jerzy Blawzdziewicz, an author of the study, a model of the nematode swimming behaviors will develop better drug screening and allow for reverse engineering of C. elegans nervous system. Blawzdziewicz notes, “The worm executes a finite set of body shapes. We have described these gaits mathematically, and now we have combined the gait models with accurate models of the flow generated by the nematode body during swimming. This unique approach has led us to determine the dependence of swimming velocity on the form of the gait and allowed us to model the turning maneuvers of the worm.” Beyond this, a locomotion model needs to be combined with the results of the hydrodynamic analysis with a description of neuromuscular control.