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Scientists study roundworms for behavior patterns

COLLEGE STATION, March 17, 2003 Inside a drawer in Luis Rene Garcia's biology lab, tens of thousands of roundworms are bumping into one another, slithering together and breeding. For the tiny worms, known to science as C. elegans, it's all just another day on a laboratory petri dish. But somewhere in the writhing masses, Dr. Garcia suspects, lie clues to a mystery with large implications: Is some behavior hereditary?

Garcia, an assistant professor of biology at Texas A&M University, is an expert in the sexual habits of C. elegans and the genes that apparently control the behaviors. Although the premise that heredity influences human behavior is controversial, it is more generally accepted in animals, Garcia says, especially when it involves base behaviors such as mating.

He straddles the familiar nature-nurture debate, theorizing that genes set basic tendencies and the environment shapes the behaviors further. To begin testing his hypothesis, Garcia is deconstructing some of the most elemental of all behaviors in one of the world's simplest organisms.

A tiny nematode that lives in dirt and grazes on bacteria, C. elegans is a popular laboratory subject because a scientist can store thousands in a sample dish the size of a hockey puck, easily supplying the numbers necessary for statistically significant experiments. About 1 millimeter long and conveniently transparent, the worm arrives microscope-ready, and even though it has fewer than 400 neurons (compared with hundreds of billions in the human brain) it has a large repertoire of behaviors for a scientist to observe.

Garcia fishes C. elegans from his petri dishes, separates out the males, and alters their genes with mutagenic chemicals. By mutating them, he has discovered that he can short-circuit aspects of their mating behavior. Normally, the little wrigglers do not display aspects of mating behavior until they bump into something they recognize as a mate. But the mutant males tha
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Contact: Mark Minton
mminton@science.tamu.edu
979-862-1237
Texas A&M University
17-Mar-2003


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