Researchers learning to talk with worms

Researchers learning to talk with worms

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January 26, 2012

Language plays an important role in controlling human societies and influencing human behavior. Whether from the news people watch on TV or the advice they receive from their friends, understanding the language a person speaks can greatly help understand the way they act.

The same can just as easily be said for other species, however. Researchers have put substantial effort into recording and interpreting whale calls or the social cues of primates. Now, a group at the California Institute of Technology and the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell believe they may have cracked a crucial part of the code in the language of nematodes, the prolific phylum of worms commonly known as roundworms.

This large group of species includes a wide variety of some of the world's most insidious parasites from hookworms, which lead to substantial gastrointestinal and other issues, to trichinas, which cause the potentially fatal infection known as trichinosis. All told, almost 25 percent of the population of the world is infected with some form of nematode along with a substantial number of plants and animals, according to Caltech professor Paul Sternberg.

With the massive scale of these infections, understanding the way these animals communicate and structure their colonies could hold important medical applications. The group of researchers at Caltech and Cornell had already made notable strides in this direction in 2008, with the discovery of certain chemical signals that are used in attracting sexual partners.

But now the group once again reports that it could have made a substantial breakthrough in the understanding of the worms' interactions, specifically the signals that they use to indicate a desire for others to gather or flee.

PhysOrg.com explains that the group used a process known as comparative metabolomics in which they looked at the chemicals present in wild worms versus worms specifically bred not to be able to issue these signals. By looking at the specific combinations of unique chemicals released by the worms, the researchers were able to begin parsing the meanings of certain chemicals and the ways they interact to represent certain messages.

"We're starting to get a hold on the chemical 'alphabet' that makes up these words, which have different meanings in different social contexts," Jagan Srinivasan, a senior fellow at Caltech and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. "It's a modular code that tells us that within the physiology of the organism, there is a lot going on in terms of how the environment is interpreted and read out for social communication."

One of the most interesting aspects of the discovery was the way in which the various pieces of the nematode 'language' interact. Certain chemicals have individual meanings, but can be modified to dramatically change their intention. For example, a signal comprising two compounds that calls for the worms to flee can mean the exact opposite by adding a third compound. The researchers believe that this could be a major first step toward developing more effective means of treating various nematode infection.

"One of the ways to eradicate them would be to have some sort of a chemical that can attract them in order to kill them more efficiently," Srinivasan explained.

The group even believes that further analysis of this basic language and the way it interacts with their very simplistic nervous system could aid in the understanding of human language, and specifically the ways in which the brain absorbs social signals. There is even the possibility that some vertebrates could use similar chemical signalling processes.

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