Studying glial cells is technically difficult as they are essential for neuronal cell survival: disturbing them in any way puts the organism's life in jeopardy. Shaham and Perens show that worms are the perfect model system to study the function of these cells in the nervous system, because the glial cells can be manipulated and the neurons still form and function, though not entirely as normal.
"Glial cells have been traditionally hard to study in vertebrates because it is difficult to ask how they influence neurons beyond how they affect a neuron's survival," says Shaham, head of the Strang Laboratory of Developmental Genetics. "This is the first paper to take a serious crack at glial cells in C. elegans. It shows that the worm really is a great system in which to study glial cells, because we are able to get the kind of answers that could help us understand how they are functioning in the human brain."
The story began 30 years ago with the daf-6 mutant worm, the sixth type of mutant worm found that was defective in dauer formation. Dauer is when worms enter a kind of suspended animation state because of overcrowding or starvation. Research by other scientists hinted that the mutation in this daf-6 worm was involved in glial cell development, but no one designed experiments to directly ask, and the mutant was forgotten.
"We had this mutant worm that nobody had looked at in more than 15 years," says Perens, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in Shaham's lab. "We started with the knowledge that
Contact: Kristine Kelly