It feels like yesterday that I was sitting in the Tom and Lula Gooch auditorium at UT Southwestern listening to a mesmerizing speech on ‘Mapping the human genome’. This was three years ago and the speaker was the 2002 Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Sydney Brenner. His introduction and establishment of the free-living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for genetic and molecular studies opened new horizons in scientific research. It took nearly three decades since its inception for scientists to sequence the first complete animal genome in 1998. It was C. elegans.

Dr. Katie Dumas, Postdoc in the Lithgow lab.

Dr. Katie Dumas, Postdoc in the Lithgow lab.

As part of the Buck’s model organism seminar series organized by the Post-Doctoral Association, Dr. Kathleen (Katie) Dumas described how scientists are using C. elegans to understand fundamental processes of aging in humans. Katie did her PhD at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with Dr. Patrick Hu, who is renowned for his research in C. elegans. She is currently continuing her postdoctoral research on aging in C. elegans in Dr. Gordon Lithgow’s lab at Buck Institute.

Katie delivered a fantastic presentation and succinctly outlined to the audience the advantages of using the worm as a genetic model. She began with a background on basic worm morphology and developmental plasticity in different environmental conditions. She then navigated through the intricacies of using worms as a genetic tool. This ranged from using both forward and reverse genetics in worms to creating transgenic reporter animals. She further illustrated how genome manipulation and genome editing can be done quickly and efficiently using CRISPR/Cas9 system in C. elegans. Katie also mentioned important online community resources available for worm research (see Caenorhabditis Genetics Center, WormBook, WormAtlas, WormBase).

Young versus old worms. The older worm on the right has a drastically different morphology than the young worm on the left and depicts some of the aspects of human aging. (Photo source: Ghazi Lab at CHP)

Young versus old worms. The older worm on the right has a drastically different morphology than the young worm on the left and depicts some aspects of human aging. (Photo source: Ghazi Lab at CHP)

As she was talking about the ease of coupling genetic mutants in worms, she was interrupted by intriguing question like: is the daf-2 rsks-1 double mutant a world record holder in lifespan extension? She also highlighted the in-house facilities that make C. elegans aging research at Buck possible. This was useful information for those interested in conducting C. elegans research at the Institute.

In short, Katie’s seminar outlined how to effectively use C. elegans to answer complex questions related to our own research. Being a worm researcher myself, it feels good to see the advancements we have made by studying this 1 mm long organism. Let’s call it a celebration of basic research in our relentless search for finding answers to much bigger problems related to human health.