We need the public’s help in observing the behaviour of tiny nematode worms. When you classify on wormwatchlab.org you’re shown a video of a worm wriggling around. The aim of the game is to watch and wait for the worm to lay eggs, and to hit the ‘z’ key when they do. It’s very simple and strangely addictive. By watching these worms lay eggs, you’re helping to collect valuable data about genetics that will assist medical research.
The MRC have built tracking microscopes to record these videos of crawling worms. A USB microscope is mounted on a motorised stage connected to a computer. When the worm moves, the computer analyses the changing image and commands the stage to move to re-centre the worm in the field of view. Because the trackers work without supervision, they can run eight of them in parallel to collect a lot of video! It’s these movies that we need the public to help classify.
By watching movies of the nematode worms, we can understand how the brain works and how genes affect behaviour. The idea is that if a gene is involved in a visible behaviour, then mutations that break that gene might lead to detectable behavioural changes. The type of change gives us a hint about what the affected gene might be doing. Although it is small and has far fewer cells than we do, the worm used in these studies (called C. elegans) has almost as many genes as we do! We share a common ancestor with these worms, so many of their genes are closely related to human genes. This presents us with the opportunity to study the function of genes that are important for human brain function in an animal that is easier to handle, great for microscopy and genetics, and has a generation time of only a few days. It’s all quite amazing!