What's with worms? EWU science students learn about gene knockout.

I walked into the seminar, and it was packed. Students took up every seat and stood against every wall. There were more students here than  I'd seen outside most larger events, all here for “Worms, Zebrafish, and Stem Cells oh my!"

I am not a scientist. I don't even much like worms. But that's what's great about college: here was an entire room of future scientists who did.

The researchers studied C. Elegans (referred to nonscientifically as "worms" from now on), a roundworm about 1 mm in length. This worm isn't your average worm: it's tiny, see through, and very simple with only about a thousand cells. Researchers love that the worms won’t bite or poop on them like mice will.

So why this worm? C. Elegans was the first multicellular organism to have its entire genetic code sequenced. What that means is we’re not sure what all the genes do yet, but we know where they are and we’ve named ‘em.

(At EWU, you can study worms as part of the Worm Wrangling Crew. For real.)

What the heck’s with the worms?

The big topic–and the reasons so many people were here–was the information about FER kinase, a gene present in most animals. So what is FER kinase?

If you’re a worm, it helps your skin stick together. It’s called FRK-1 in worms, and if you’re a worm without FRK-1, your cells end up all one type of skin and uneven. You end up looking like a really ugly raspberry.

This is important because we can use FRK-1 to study  how stem cells work in certain situations. For example, if we mistakenly add FRK-1 back to some of the worm’s skin cells and not to others, we don’t help the worm recover. Instead, it can actually cause the worm to explode!

You can see why scientists would want to study stem cells in other animals before they tried this type of work on humans. And at EWU, you learn about this.

But fish are different (somehow)

Zebrafish have FER kinase, too, so the same thing should be true in their bodies, yeah?

Nope.

Without the FER-kinase gene, zebrafish end up with big pools of blood just sitting in their bodies. The skin is perfectly fine and the heart still beats, but the blood doesn’t move. The lack of FER kinase also changes the way blood vessels work.

Why? It turns out that without FER-kinase, the blood vessels didn’t develop correctly, and the blood gets trapped in the aorta like water in a clogged sink.

It all matters for the future

So what does this all mean if the same gene ends up doing two things for different species?

The end goal to this kind of scientific research is to help prevent human diseases, and to do that, future scientists need to know how genes work in complex systems . Studying worms is a key step in an unending chain of discovery, and it’s the reasons so many EWU students attended a fascinating and very wormy lecture.

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