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Worm Watch Lab: one year on

by Guest Author on 24 Sep 2014

It’s been more than a year since we launched Worm Watch Lab, a citizen science project in which people watch videos of tiny nematode worms. So what’s been spotted in the intervening year? Vicky Butt, a summer student in the Behavioural Genomics Lab at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, brings us up to date and explains why we need your help more than ever.

It’s been a busy year for the Worm Watch Lab. Since going live on 25 July 2013, 6,500 people have watched videos of nematode worms laying eggs almost 200,000 times.

Just like other Zooniverse projects ― such as Galaxy Zoo ― anyone can sign up to be a worm watcher. The idea is that they watch 30-second videos of the worms, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), and press ‘z’ on their keyboard whenever they see the worm lay an egg.

Impressive worm-tracking cameras attached to microscopes make videos of each worm strain. There are more than 300 strains, each with a different mutation. But why are we looking at the worms like this? It’s because looking at how the mutation affects egg-laying is an easily visible way of getting clues about what the mutation does.

Egg-laying is controlled by neurons that are modulated by the well-known neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is popularised in the media as the “happiness chemical” in humans, but it is also ubiquitous in animal nervous systems, including C. elegans.

These worms are a fantastic model of the nervous system to study. They were the first multicellular organisms to have their genome sequenced completely and their entire neural anatomy has been mapped. They are composed of about 1,000 cells and have exactly 302 neurons, making them a ‘simple’ model to investigate.

Despite being distantly related, C. elegans and humans share about 40 per cent of our genes. If we find mutations in C. elegans that make them release more serotonin, we might be able to use this knowledge to discover new drug targets to treat depression in humans.

After applying to the MRC Summer Studentship scheme, I was invited to join the lab, run by Andre Brown, for eight weeks. My job is to look at the data from the past year and check for inaccuracies and anomalies.

It is rare to see more than five eggs being laid in 30 seconds, so it’s my job to spot things like 2,155 presses of ‘z’ on one video. It was a little horrifying to think that there is a worm out there that can lay 2,155 eggs in 30 seconds. Though the more realistic scenario ― that this particular user could press ‘z’ that many times in 30 seconds ― was also pretty impressive.

In the past year, we have learnt that in many cases it is not just a simple “spot the egg-laying, press the z key” scenario. Below are five of the weirdest videos I have discovered so far in my role as Worm Watch Big Brother.

[Video link for access.]

A year has gone by but we still need your help. There are many more unwatched videos waiting to be explored. With videos viewed almost 200,000 times, we’re a fifth of the way to our target of one million videos watched. To take part, visit the Worm Watch Lab website.

Vicky Butt

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