Biology professor researches connection between worms, humans

On April 6, biology professor Elisabeth Cox delivered "Worm Guts: Using C. elegans to Study Tube Development," a lecture investigating the relationship between early roundworms and more complex organisms.

Cox and her students have examined Caenorhabditis elegans to examine the genes of these miniature roundworms and to observe morphogenesis – the process by which tissues develop and gain three dimensions over time.

"It's the study of how we go from a single cell to multi-celled [organisms] like ourselves," Cox said of morphogenesis.

The work of scientists on C. elegans has led to the discovery that about 50 to 60 percent of their genes are quite similar to ours. The study of these tiny organisms is especially interesting considering that their little bodies have about one thousand cells in them; humans are thought to contain about 100 trillion cells.

A developmental biologist, Cox looks at the tubular intestines and how genes and proteins change their growth. The intestinal tube of the worm, although just one cell thick, is regulated by certain proteins like tropomodulin that control its growth. By changing the levels of this protein in the worms, Cox said she can mutate the worms and better understand the importance of such a tube to the creature.

But it is not just about understanding tubes for Cox.

"It's also for the sheer joy of understanding how they're built," she said, noting that there is a lot to learn about C. elegans that could change what we know about ourselves and be applied to regenerative studies. Doctors are already using tissue and tube building outside the human body to repair internal parts and missing skin.

The study of C. elegans could lead to further advances in the fields of aging, metabolism, muscle function, cell division and disease prevention in other species. It's why three Nobel Prizes have already been issued on the subject.

Examining these soil worms, as over 200 labs now do, could improve human lives, Cox said.