The history of Caenorhabditis elegans (C.elegans) in research begins with one of the leading biologists of the 20th century – Sydney Brenner. In the 1960s, Brenner developed an insight into using C. elegans as a genetic model for understanding questions of developmental biology and neurobiology. Nearly 40 years later, in 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the establishment of C. elegans as a novel model organism for human-disease research.

What is C. elegans?

C.elegans is a microscopic, 1mm long free-living nematode found in soil around the world. The miniscule size of C. elegans suggests the use of microscopes in order to observe behavioural aspects of its life, or to conduct more detailed investigations down to the cellular level1.

C.elegans worms mainly reproduce via ‘female’ hermaphrodite self-fertilisation and can produce up to 300 self-progeny. Females can also reproduce with “male” worms, however the latter occurs at a frequency of less than 0.2%. During their short life cycle of approximately 3 days, eggs pass through 4 larval stages upon hatching (L1-L2-L3 and L4) through to adulthood, and gravid worms can also lay their own eggs.

Worms are usually maintained and grown at temperatures between 12-25°C. Unlike humans, they are unable to regulate their temperature and are consequently temperature sensitive. This suggests that a worm maintained at a temperature of 15°C, for example, will grow at a slower rate compared to one maintained at 20°C1.

C. elegans in research

The assessment of the main characteristics of C. elegans already shows its potential to be a good candidate for biological research. However, there are several other notable features which support C. elegans as a well-established model organism and a cornerstone of research.

Firstly, the C. elegans organism is easy and quick to grow and affordable to maintain. As mentioned previously, they produce a significant number of progeny – starting from a single worm within a few days, leading to an extensive population at various stages of development and adult life1.

In addition, the transparent body of C. elegans provides a great avenue for internal organs and cells to be extensively studied and observed. The invariant number of its somatic cells enable researchers to track the fate of every cell between fertilization and adulthood in live animals, and generate a complete cell lineage2,3.

C. elegans was also the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced4. As a result, further research identified extraordinary links to the biological and genetic relationship between C. elegans and the advanced human organism. Indeed, 60-80% of human genes have an orthologs (functional counterpart) in the C. elegans genome5 and 40% of genes known to be associated with human diseases have clear orthologs in the C. elegans genome6.

The latter, accompanied with the ease of introducing mutations into C. elegans, makes it a great candidate for creating human disease models, including ageing.

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By Sotirios Kleidonas
Laboratory Operations Manager

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1 Wormbook: The Online Review of C. elegans Biology [Online] [Accessed: September 2019][Available:  http://www.wormbook.org/]
2 Sulston, JE and HR Horvitz. Post-embryonic cell lineages of the nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans. Dev. Biol. (1977); 56: 110-156.
3 Kimble, J. and D. Hirsh. The post-embryonic cell lineages of the hermaphrodite and male gonads in Caenorhabditis elegans. Dev. Biol. (1979); 70: 396-417.
4 The C. elegans Sequencing Consortium. Genome sequence of the nematode C. elegans: a platform for investigating biology. Science (1998): 2012-2018.
5 Kaletta, T and Hengartner, MO. Finding function in novel targets: C. elegans as a model organism. Nat. Rev. Drug Discov. (2006); 5: 387-398.
6 Culetto, E and Sattelle, DB. A role for Caenorhabditis elegans in understanding the function and interactions of human disease genes. Hum. Mol. Genet. (2000); 9: 869-877.

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