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|An adult hermaphrodite C. elegans worm|
|An adult hermaphrodite C. elegans worm|
Caenorhabditis elegans / / is a free-living (non-sessile), transparent nematode (roundworm), about 1 mm in length, that lives in temperate soil environments. The name is a blend of Greek (caeno- - recent, rhabditis - rod-like) and Latin (elegans - elegant). In 1900, Maupas initially named it Rhabditides elegans, Osche placed it in the subgenus Caenorhabditis in 1952, and Dougherty raised it to generic status in 1955. In 1974, Sydney Brenner began research into the molecular and developmental biology of C. elegans, which has since been extensively used as a model organism.
C. elegans was the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced.
C. elegans is unsegmented, vermiform, and bilaterally symmetrical. It has a cuticle, four main epidermal cords, and a fluid-filled pseudocoelom, (body cavity). They also have some of the same organ systems as larger animals. Almost all individuals of C. elegans are female hermaphrodites; and there is a small minority of, around one in a thousand, true males. The basic anatomy of C. elegans includes a mouth, pharynx, intestine, gonad, and collagenous cuticle. Males have a single-lobed gonad, a vas deferens, and a tail specialized for mating, which incorporates spicules . Hermaphrodites have two ovaries, oviducts, spermatheca, and a single uterus. The four bands of muscles that run the length of the body are connected to a neural system that allows the muscles to move the animal's body only in the dorsal/ventral direction; hence, any living, moving individual is always on either its left or its right side when observed crossing a horizontal surface.
There are numerous gut granules present in the intestine of C. elegans, the functions of which are still not fully known, as are many other aspects of this nematode, despite the many years that it has been studied. These gut granules are found in all of the Rhabdita orders. They are very similar to lysosomes in that they feature an acidic interior and the capacity for endocytosis, but they are considerably larger, reinforcing the view of their being a storage organelle. A remarkable feature of the granules is that when they are looked at under ultraviolet light, they react by emitting an intense blue fluorescence. Another phenomenon seen is termed death fluorescence. As the worms die, a dramatic burst of blue fluorescence is emitted. This death fluorescence typically takes place in an anterior to posterior wave that moves along the intestine, and is seen in both young and old worms, subjected to lethal injury or peacefully dying of old age. There have been many theories on the functions of the gut granules with earlier ones being eliminated by later findings. It is thought that they store zinc as one of their functions. Recent chemical analysis has identified the blue fluorescent material that they contain as a glycosylated form of anthranilic acid (AA). The need for the large amounts of AA that the many gut granules contain is questioned. One possibility is that the AA is anti-bacterial and used in defense of invading pathogens. Another possibility, is that the granules provide photoprotection: the bursts of AA fluorescence entails the conversion of damaging UV light to relatively harmless visible light. There is seen a possible link here to the melanin containing melanosomes.
The hermaphrodite, which is considered to be a specialized form of self-fertile female because its soma is female whereas its germ line produces male gametes first, lays eggs through its uterus after internal fertilization. Under environmental conditions which are favourable for reproduction, hatched larvae develop through 4 stages or molts, designated as (L1 to L4). When conditions are stressed as in food insufficiency, C. elegans can enter an alternative third larval stage called the dauer state. Dauer is German for permanent. Dauer larvae are stress-resistant and do not age. Hermaphrodites produce all their sperm in the L4 stage (150 sperm per gonadal arm) and then produce only oocytes. The sperm are stored in the same area of the gonad as the oocytes until the first oocyte pushes the sperm into the spermatheca (a chamber wherein the oocytes become fertilized by the sperm). The male can inseminate the hermaphrodite, which will preferentially use male sperm (both types of sperm are stored in the spermatheca). When self-inseminated, the wild-type worm will lay approximately 300 eggs. When inseminated by a male, the number of progeny can exceed 1,000. At 20 °C, the laboratory strain of C. elegans has an average life span of approximately two–three weeks and a generation time of approximately four days.
The different Caenorhabditis species occupy various nutrient and bacteria rich environments. They feed on the bacteria that develop in decaying organic matter. Soil lacks enough organic matter to support self-sustaining populations. C. elegans can survive on a diet of a variety of many kinds of bacteria, but its wild ecology is largely unknown. Most laboratory strains were taken from artificial environments such as gardens and compost piles. More recently, C. elegans has been found to be thriving in other kinds of organic matter, particularly rotting fruit. Invertebrates such as millipedes, insects, isopods, and gastropods can transport dauer larvae, to various suitable locations. The larvae have also been seen to feed on their host when it dies.
In 1963, Sydney Brenner proposed using C. elegans as a model organism for the investigation of animal development; e.g., neural development. Brenner chose it mainly because it is simple, easy to grow in bulk populations, and convenient for genetic analysis. It is a multicellular eukaryotic organism that is simple enough to be studied in great detail. Strains are cheap to breed and can be frozen. When subsequently thawed, they remain viable, allowing long-term storage. Its other desirable properties are:
The transparency of C. elegans facilitates studying cellular differentiation and other developmental processes in the intact organism. The morphology of the tail region clearly distinguishes males from hermaphrodites.
The developmental fate of every single somatic cell (959 in the adult hermaphrodite; 1031 in the adult male) has been mapped. These patterns of cell lineage are largely invariant between individuals, unlike in mammals, wherein cell development from the embryo more depends on cellular cues.
Programmed cell death (apoptosis) eliminates many additional cells (131 in the hermaphrodite, most of which would otherwise become neurons); this "apoptotic predictability" has contributed to the elucidation of some apoptotic genes, mainly through observation of abnormal, apoptosis-surviving nematodes.
It is one of the simplest organisms with a nervous system. In the hermaphrodite, this system comprises 302 neurons the pattern of which, or "connectome", has been completely mapped and shown to be a small-world network. Research has explored the neural mechanisms that control several of the more interesting behaviors of C. elegans; e.g., chemotaxis, thermotaxis, mechanotransduction, and male mating behavior.
RNA interference (RNAi), is a relatively straightforward method of disrupting the function of specific genes. Silencing the function of a gene can sometimes allow a researcher to infer its possible function(s). The nematode can be either soaked in or injected with a solution of double-stranded RNA, the sequence of which complements the sequence of the gene that the researcher wishes to disable; worms can alternatively be fed genetically transformed bacteria that express the double-stranded RNA of interest. gene loss-of-function experiments in C. elegans are the easiest of all animal models, enabling scientists to establish that only 9% of the 20,000 gene genome has a functional role.
Environmental RNAi uptake is much worse in other species of worm in the Caenorhabditis genus. Although injecting RNA into the body cavity of the animal induces gene silencing in most species, only C. elegans and a few other distantly related nematodes can uptake RNA from the bacteria that they eat for RNAi. This ability has been mapped down to a single gene, sid-2, which, when inserted as a transgene in other species, allows them to so uptake RNA for RNAi as C. elegans does.
Studying meiosis is considerably simplified. As sperm and egg nuclei move down the gonad, so they temporally progress through meiotic events; the difficulties of heterogenous cellular populations are eliminated because every nucleus at a given position in the gonad therefore is at roughly the same step in meiosis.
It can also be used to study nicotine dependence because it exhibits behavioral responses to nicotine that parallel those of mammals; e.g., acute response, tolerance, withdrawal, and sensitization.
As for most model organisms, scientists that work in the field curate a dedicated online database for C. elegans. The WormBase database attempts to collate all published information on C. elegans and other related nematodes. Their website has advertised a reward of $4000 for the finder of a new species of closely related nematode. Such a discovery would broaden research opportunities with the worm.
C. elegans has been a model organism for research into ageing; for example - the inhibition of an insulin-like growth factor (IGF), signaling pathway has been shown to increase adult lifespan threefold. Moreover, extensive research on C. elegans has identified RNA-binding proteins as essential factors during germline and early embryonic development.
C. elegans has five pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes. Sex in C. elegans is based on an X0 sex-determination system. Hermaphrodite C. elegans have a matched pair of sex chromosomes (XX); the rare males have only one sex chromosome (X0). The sperm of C. elegans is ameboid, lacking flagella and acrosomes.
C. elegans made news when specimens were discovered to have survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in February 2003. Later, in January 2009, live samples of C. elegans from the University of Nottingham were announced to be spending two weeks on the International Space Station that October in a project to explore the effects of zero gravity on muscle development and physiology. The research was primarily about genetic basis of muscle atrophy, which relates to space travel or being bed-ridden, geriatric, or diabetic. Descendants of the worms aboard Columbia in 2003 were launched into space on Endeavour for the STS-134 mission.
C. elegans was the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced. The sequence was published in 1998 although some small gaps were present; the last gap was finished by October 2002. The C. elegans genome is approximately 100 million base pairs long and consists of six chromosomes (named I, II, III, IV, V and X) and a mitochondrial genome. Its gene density is about 1 gene/5kb. Introns, or non-expressed sequences, are 26% of the genome. Some large, intergenic regions contain repetitive DNA sequences. Many genes are arranged in operons, which are polycistronic series that are together transcribed. C. elegans and other nematodes are among the few eukaryotes currently known to have operons.
The genome contains approximately 20,470 protein-coding genes. The number of known RNA genes in the genome has increased greatly due to the 2006 discovery of a new class of 21U-RNA genes, and the genome is now believed to contain more than 16,000 RNA genes, up from as few as 1,300 in 2005. Scientific curators continue to appraise the set of known genes: new gene predictions continue to be added and incorrect ones modified or removed.
In 2003, the genome sequence of the related nematode C. briggsae was also determined, allowing researchers to study the comparative genomics of these two organisms. The genome sequences of more nematodes from the same genus e.g., C. remanei, C. japonica and C. brenneri are under study  via the whole genome shotgun technique, which is less complete and accurate than the "hierarchical" or clone-by-clone approach that was used on C. elegans.
The official version of the C. elegans genome sequence continues to change as new evidence reveals errors in the original sequencing. Most changes are minor, adding or removing only a few base pairs (bp) of DNA. For example, the WS202 release of WormBase (April 2009) added two base pairs to the genome sequence. More extensive changes are sometimes made; e.g., the WS197 release of December 2008, which added a region of over 4,600 bp to the sequence.
A few conserved protein sequences in the distantly related sponges more resemble those of humans than of C. elegans. An accelerated rate of evolution may therefore have occurred in the C. elegans lineage. The same study found that several phylogenetically ancient genes are absent in C. elegans.
In 2002, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Sydney Brenner, H. Robert Horvitz and John Sulston for their work on the genetics of organ development and programmed cell death in C. elegans. The 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Andrew Fire and Craig C. Mello for their discovery of RNA interference in C. elegans. In 2008, Martin Chalfie shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on green fluorescent protein, some of which research involved the use of C. elegans.
Many scientists who research C. elegans closely connect to Sydney Brenner, with whom almost all research in this field began in the 1970s; they have worked as either a post-doctoral or a post-graduate researcher in Brenner's lab or in the lab of someone who previously worked with Brenner. Most who worked in his lab later established their own worm research labs, thereby creating a fairly well-documented "lineage" of C. elegans scientists, which was recorded into the WormBase database in some detail at the 2003 International Worm Meeting.
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