The Brain Science of Worm Watching

05 August 2013

‘People sometimes think scientists sit around all day, and think about big questions and don’t get their hands dirty,’ says Dr William Schafer, Group Leader at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology. So Worm Watch Lab enables any science enthusiast to get their ‘hands dirty’ through the simple act of watching and logging worm behaviours.

Worm Watch Lab, a collaboration between Zooniverse – enabler of ‘citizen science’ projects – and the MRC is studying worm egg laying in a project exploring brain circuitry and how genes affect behaviour. ‘We’ve studied these Nematode worms,’ says Dr William Schafer, ‘because they have a very simple nervous system but at a biochemical level their neurons work very much the same as human neurons.’ 

The team became interested in egg laying by worms, ‘because egg laying is one of the main behaviours controlled by serotonin which of course is interesting to human clinicians because of its role in mood,’ says Dr Schafer. The worms lay eggs about 10 times an hour, and while automated computer vision is good at tracking crawling and movement, it is more difficult to register the worms laying eggs by their side. 

The films of the worms’ egg laying revealed a pattern, which the team could describe in terms of equations. ‘The interesting thing,’ says Dr. Schafer, ‘is that there were particular parameters of this timing that were controlled by serotonin.’ Over many years the team involved in observing and analysing worm behaviour had developed more sophisticated techniques, developing methods for using computer vision to measure things about behaviour that were interesting for different neurological pathways – such as ‘how curvy their locomotion was or how they moved their head.’ 

But to figure out the relationship between genes, the nervous-system and egg-laying behaviour, they needed more eyes for the huge amount of visual data they had compiled – 10,000 movies means ‘10,000 15 minute movies’ says Schafer, ‘and each clip is only seconds which makes over 300, 000 clips.’ So Worm Watch Lab was born. Because egg-laying is controlled by a totally different part of the nervous system, ‘if we can find correlations between different behaviours produced by different sets of muscles, then that will be a good way to get at these questions about mood, behavioural and neural states, which are really interesting and really tricky to understand.’