“What do you like about studying C. elegans?”

celegansconfThis was the question posed to attendees (myself included) by long-time scientists/entertainers Morris Maduro and Curtis Loer at the Genetics Society of America (GSA)’s 20th Annual Worm Conference hosted at UCLA this past June. Out of all the worm conferences around the nation each year, this is the only one referred to simply as “THE Worm Meeting.”

The emcees of the ever-popular, conference-ending variety show (the Worm Show) asked attendees of the conference what they enjoyed the most. By far the most popular answer was “the community.” One couldn’t help but feel caught up in something big and cohesive, held intact by the youthful stringiness of the field: most of the pioneers are still alive and kicking with webs of prodigy scientists succeeding and spreading the worm gospel.

This year the organizers overtly recognized the history of our biomedical research niche in which C. elegans nematodes are used as a model organism (see our SAGE blog on how C. elegans models are used to study aging). The genesis of Caenorhabditis in research dates to ideas put forth by Sydney Brenner in 1963 in a letter to Max Perutz. The idea took off and led to major breakthroughs in genetics, molecular science, and pharmacokinetics in the 1970s.

Caenorhabditis elegans, Dr. Garrison's preferred model organism for studying neuropeptide activities. (Image source Wikimedia)

Adult Caenorhabditis elegans (Image source Wikimedia)

I’m relatively new to worm research, with previous experience as a technical writer, wildlife biologist, and nonprofit development officer. After working in administration and development at the Buck Institute for 6 years, I got an offer I could not refuse: to work in the lab of Dr. Gordon Lithgow. I jumped at the chance, and am now a technician on a consortium project between the Lithgow lab and the labs of Monica Driscoll (Rutgers) and Patrick Phillips (Univ. of Oregon). We are using worms to screen healthspan-enhancing compounds and to develop controlled methods for broad experimental reproducibility.

Stepping from the microcosm of our lab into the macrocosm of Worm People was like emerging from a thin trickle into the rush of a whitewater rapid. I was blown away by the energy, community, and mutual affection of worm folks. Names on journal pages became faces with eureka stories, friendly jibes, and advice for newer researchers – names like Nobel laureates Marty Chalfie (co-developer of GFP techniques) and Craig Mello (co-developer of RNAi technology).

It wasn’t long after I arrived that I started to hear the hive buzz among the thousand-plus audience members during the plenary talks in the beautiful Royce Hall on UCLA’s main campus. It sounded like a collective call-to-action: “One of us! One of us!”

The conference ran for five days with large plenary talks interspersed with breakout discussions on diverse subjects (physiology, neurology, cell development, gene regulation, etc.) I stuck mainly to sessions on stress, aging, and worm tracking and image capture. Keeping an eye on worms and their activity is a lot easier when one doesn’t have to look at them through a scope and poke them with a sharp wire to see if they are alive. On my project (the Caenorhabditis Intervention Testing Program or CITP), we use modified scanners and image-analysis software to assess worms on a touch-free system over their entire post-reproductive lifespan. This so-called “Lifespan Machine” was developed by Nick Stroustrup in the Fontana lab at Harvard Medical School. I heard his presentation on the technology and enjoyed learning about other competing platforms.

CITP worms on the Lifespan Machine

CITP worms on the Lifespan Machine. (Photo by Todd Plummer)


It’s impossible to describe the whole elephant – to capture the enormity of the hundreds of posters, talks, and conversations of the Worm Conference. So here are a few snapshot moments that stand out from my experience:

  • Meeting several of my collaborators from other institutions face-to-face for the first time and really liking them as people. I prefer face-to-face contact. It’s way better than busy, tweaky conference calls and nuts-and-bolts emails.
  • Hearing inspirational talks from the aforementioned Nobel laureates, especially Craig Mello. He really got me when he used the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image as a metaphor for the value of looking ever deeper into areas of inquiry that may seem “picked-over” or absent of interest. In that image taken of a tiny slice of dark sky devoid of visible stars, Hubble imaged something like 10,000 galaxies.
  • Realizing that I could learn something from every talk, no matter how unfamiliar the subject matter seemed to be.
  • Getting locked in my dorm bathroom at 4:30 in the morning. Luckily for me, the guy in the room on the other side of the shared bathroom was a worm scientist studying sleep (ha!) and wasn’t too cross when I had to pound on his door to get help. So we sat in his room – both in our jammies – and chatted about worms until help came to let me into my room. I never saw him again.
  • Seeing former colleagues from the Buck, like Di Chen (Kapahi lab) and Pedro Rodrigues (Lithgow lab) who have gone on to other labs.
  • Learning about the recent discovery of C. elegans’ so-called “sister species” – Species 32 – by Gavin Woodruff in Okinawa. Species 34 lives on living figs visited by a certain species of fig wasp, unlike most Caenorhabditis which prefer rotting fruit in compost or on top of soil. Gavin was working at FFPRI at Tsukuba but now works with CITP collaborator Patrick Phillips.
  • Seeing this amazing “rainbow cloud” during a break between sessions. While the Rainbow image seemed especially poignant in light of the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, I think that it also reflects the many voices, talents, and experiences of the river of Worm People.

    Outside Royce Hall, UCLA.

    Outside Royce Hall, UCLA.  (Photo by Todd Plummer)

I’m definitely looking forward to the next Worm Conference!