Magazine article Science News

Putting a Worm on a Laser Leash: Scientists Use Light Signals to Control Nematode Actions

Magazine article Science News

Putting a Worm on a Laser Leash: Scientists Use Light Signals to Control Nematode Actions

Article excerpt

Satirist Stephen Colbert envisions his "Colbert Nation" mentally marching in lockstep with his special brand of patriotism. But researchers have done him one better, by creating tiny worm-bots completely under the scientists' control.

Rather than comedic persuasion, a laser light can make a live worm turn left, freeze or lay an egg, scientists report online January 16 in Nature Methods.

The new system, named COLBERT for "Controlling Locomotion and Behavior in Real Time," doesn't just create a mindless zombie-worm, though. It gives scientists the ability to pick apart complicated behaviors on a cell-by-cell basis.

"This system is really remarkable," comments biological physicist William Ryu of the University of Toronto. "It's a very important advance in pursuit of the goal of understanding behavior."

Transparent and small, the nematode C. elegans is particularly amenable to light-based mind control. And while researchers already knew the precise locations of all 302 of the worm's nerve cells, or neurons, until now there wasn't a good way to study each cell by itself, especially in a wriggling animal.

"This tool allows us to go in and poke and prod at those neurons in an animal as it's moving, and see exactly what each neuron does," says study coauthor Andrew Leifer of Harvard University.

The system is based on the emerging field of optogenetics, in which light is used to control cells. Leifer and colleagues genetically engineered light-responsive molecules into groups of cells in the worm. …

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