The first animal to have its genome mapped is about to be the first to be completely re-created in the digital world.
This is thanks to a Kickstarter project called OpenWorm, which will digitally construct the roundworm C. elegans. Biology has already assembled a thorough picture of this microscopic worm since it is made up of only 1,000 cells. Not only has its genome been sequenced, scientists have mapped its complete development.
OpenWorm’s cofounders hope that by recreating “the most studied organism in all of biology,” in a digital space, they can help illuminate diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, which have “proto-equivalents” whose origins can be studied in the tiny worm.
Those who pledged the Kickstarter (which just closed) will receive access to “WormSim” the latest incarnation of OpenWorm. “Think Sim City or Google Earth, but for worms,” said the Steven Larson, the cofounder of OpenWorm in the Kickstarter video.
What exactly is a worm simulation?
“When we say simulation, we are specifically referring to writing computer programs that use equations from physics that are applied to what we know about the worm,” Larson told io9.”Through this simulation we want to understand how its proto-brain controls its muscles to move its body around an environment, and then how the environment is interpreted by the proto-brain.”
The WormSim program will allow users to view and rotate the worm in 3D, observe the worm’s motions and the muscles driving them, and explore the traits of individual cells.
C. elegans, pictured in the flesh below, isn’t the first organism whose biology has gone digital (that award goes to a small bacteria), but it is the first animal. C. elegans is also the most biologically well-understood organism with a brain, making it an ideal organism to simulate. It has even been the subject of three Nobel prize winning projects.
So why have researchers all over the world dedicated decades to studying a tiny slithery creature?
It’s partly due to the animal’s transparency, which allows scientists to watch the worm’s cells — even those under its skin — develop and move around the body. By tagging cells with glowing or coloured proteins, they have been able to map all 302 of its neurons and all of its neural connections. They have also mapped how each cell divides and moves while the worm develops.
And because C. elegans is actually an animal, it’s our relative on the evolutionary tree. We are similar enough cellularly that studying the worm’s biology can illuminate the workings of more complex organisms.
Despite being only 1,000 cells, the worm has many genetic similarities to humans. It also displays many complex traits such as learning and social behaviours.
The worm is expected to be released in May 2015.
Watch a recent simulation:
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