Humble worm helps Queensland and US scientists in nerve research

24 Apr 2012

Australian and US scientists have developed a new technology for studying the genetics of a common roundworm used to understand nerve development and nerve degeneration.

Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) scientists at The University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane, Australia have worked closely with researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, to develop the technology.

The work will allow neuroscientists working with the small nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), to study the genetics of its development and neurobiology in greater detail.

It is hoped that the findings in the worms can be applied to higher organisms, such as humans.

QBI scientists are working on conditions for which there are currently no cures, such as diseases of the brain, spinal cord injuries and strokes.

Dr Hang Lu of Georgia Institute and QBI’s Dr Massimo Hilliard lead the teams that developed the automated system that manoeuvres these worms for study.

Dr Hilliard said the transparent worm measured just 1mm in length.

“It is one of the simplest organisms with a nervous system, so makes a very good model organism in science,” he said.

“In addition, its DNA is known so we can alter the genes to piece together nerve cell function.

C elegans was the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced (in 1998).

It is best known as one of the few organisms that survived the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

Dr Hilliard said the new project enabled the worms to be moved into lateral positions, so they were easier to study in determining developmental and disease processes.

He said recently, microfluidic devices had been used for high-throughput genetic screens, replacing traditional methods of manually handling C. elegans.

However, the orientation of nematodes within microfluidic devices is currently random and often not conducive to inspection, hindering visual analysis and overall throughput.

While previous studies had used methods to bias head and tail orientation, none of the existing techniques allow for orientation along the dorso-ventral body axis.

The curved device developed in the project encourages the worms to preferentially adjust themselves into a lateral position, instead of relying on the use of manual procedures.

“The lateral body orientation of C. elegans is commonly seen in freely-moving animals on an agar plate,” Dr Hilliard said.

“This orientation is the most useful for analyzing neuronal processes that travel along the antero-posterior axis, as well as processes that travel laterally across the worm body.

“In this work, we show that C. elegans preferentially adjust themselves into this lateral orientation as a result of the curved geometry of our device,” he said.

To view a story on Dr Hilliard and his nerve regeneration research, using roundworms, please visit:

This press release can also be viewed at:

Mikaeli Costello
Phone: +61 401 580 685


“Laterally Orienting C. elegans Using Geometry at Microscale for High-Throughput Visual Screens in Neurodegeneration and Neuronal Development Studies” is published in PLoS ONE.

It is available online at

Queensland Brain Institute

The Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) was established as a research institute of The University of Queensland in 2003. The Institute is now operates out of a $63 million state-of-the-art facility and houses 33 principal investigators with strong international reputations. QBI is one of the largest neuroscience institutes in the world dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying brain function.