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2021.03.09

Eyeless worms detect color

Eyeless roundworms may have hacked other cellular warning systems to give themselves a form of color vision. 

In the warm, fetid environs of a compost heap, tiny roundworms feast on bacteria. But some of these microbes produce toxins, and the worms avoid them. In the lab, scientists curious about how the roundworms can tell what’s dinner and what’s dangerous often put them on top of mats of various bacteria to see if they wriggle away. One microbe species, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, reliably sends them scurrying.

But how do the worms, common lab animals of the species Caenorhabditis elegans, know to do this? Dipon Ghosh, then a graduate student in cellular and molecular physiology at Yale University, wondered if it was because they could sense the toxins produced by the bacteria. Or might it have something to do with the fact that mats of P. aeruginosa are a brilliant shade of blue?

Given that roundworms do not have eyes, cells that obviously detect light or even any of the known genes for light-sensitive proteins, this seemed a bit far-fetched. It wasn’t difficult to set up an experiment to test the hypothesis, though: Dr. Ghosh, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put some worms on patches of P. aeruginosa. Then he turned the lights off.

To the surprise of his adviser, Michael Nitabach, the worms’ flight from the bacteria was significantly slower in the dark, as though not being able to see kept the roundworms from realizing they were in danger. “When he showed me the results of the first experiments, I was shocked,” said Dr. Nitabach, who studies the molecular basis of neural circuits that guide behavior at Yale School of Medicine.

How they accomplish this perceptual feat remains a mystery, but the findings hint that the worms may have hacked other cellular warning systems to gain a kind of color vision.

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