C. elegans: what's all the fuss?

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Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans)

What is C. elegans?
C. elegans is a ubiquitous soil nematode (roundworm) that has emerged to play a key role as a model organism for biological research.

What does C. elegans look like?
Approximately 1mm in length, C. elegans is unsegmented and cylindrical in shape. Of great benefit for research purposes, C. elegans is transparent, which enables visualisation of its organs, fluid-filled body cavity and individual cells under a microscope.  Like humans, this organism is bilaterally symmetrical (i.e. if you divide it into two equal parts, the two halves appear equal).

Where is C. elegans found?
This worm is mostly found in nutrient- and bacteria-rich environments; including plant litter, compost and soil. It is native to countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, North America and Australasia.

How does C. elegans reproduce?
The vast majority of C. elegans are hermaphrodites, which produce and store sperm prior to producing oocytes (eggs) and fertilising them internally with the sperm. As such, mating is not necessary for this organism to reproduce. Interestingly however, male C. elegans also exist, and these can mate with the hermaphrodites to produce more than three times the number of offspring the hermaphrodites can produce through self-fertilisation; self-inseminated hermaphrodites lay approximately 300 eggs, whereas those inseminated by a male can lay more than 1000 eggs.

Why is C. elegans an important organism?
In the early 1960s Sydney Brenner began using C. elegans to conduct biological research, and in 1974 the worm rose to fame following the release of his seminal genetics paper, “The genetics of Caenorhabditis elegans”.
Nowadays, C. elegans is an indispensable animal model, and the number of researchers conducting studies on this organism is continuing to grow. In recent years, C. elegans has contributed to several key discoveries in various fields of biology and medicine.  

Why is C. elegans a good model for biological research?
C. elegans is considered a suitable model for biological research for a number of reasons:
•    Many molecular and cellular pathways are strongly conserved between C. elegans and mammals
•    It is easy and cheap to cultivate
•    It is a sophisticated multicellular organism
•    Experiments with C. elegans do not involve ethical concerns
•    It is small – meaning most experiments can be carried out in microtitre plates
•    It can be maintained without specialist training or equipment
•    It can grow at room temperature, in normal air conditions
•    It is transparent – allowing processes such as embryogenesis to be studied in the living organism
•    It has a short generation time and generates a large number of offspring
•    It has a small number of cells – enabling tracking of cellular lineages

References

Corsi. A. (2006). A Biochemist’s Guide to C. elegans. Anal Biochem. 359(1): 1–17

Kaletta. T., Hengartner. M. (2006). Finding function in novel targets: C. elegans as a model organism. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery. 5: 387-399

Leung. M., Williams. P., Benedetto. A., Au. C., Helmcke. K., Aschner. M., Meyer. J (2008). Caenorhabditis elegans: An Emerging Model in Biomedical and Environmental Toxicology. Toxicological Sciences.106(1): 5–28

Hulme. E and Whitesides Angew. G. (2011). Chemistry and the Worm: Caenorhabditis elegans as a Platform for Integrating Chemical and Biological Research. Chem. Int. Ed. 50: 4774 – 4807

Hillier. L., Coulson. A., Murray. J., Bao. Z., Sulston. J., Waterston. J. (2005). Genomics in C. elegans: So many genes, such a little worm. Genome Research.15:1651–1660