Nematode valued for research

A tiny worm commonly found in compost has become a useful subject for research and forms the basis for several projects across ECU that have received federal funding.

“Caenorhabditis elegans is a little nematode worm,” said Brett Keiper, associate professor in the Brody School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “It’s not a parasite. It’s found in compost, and it’s found everywhere on every continent. It’s about a millimeter long, thin and clear. And it reproduces like crazy.”

The nematode has earned three recent Nobel prizes for other investigators. Its reproductive cycle is part of what makes it a valuable model for research.

“It has a reproductive cycle that’s really a lot like that of higher animals,” Keiper said. “It reproduces sexually – it makes sperm and it makes eggs. … And the developing gametes are lined up in a nice linear fashion, start to finish. We observe the expression of proteins that make stem cells turn into sperm, eggs or even tumors when mutated.”

Each worm produces and fertilizes its own eggs – producing sperm in the larval stage and eggs as an adult.

“They make both gametes, one first and then the other,” Keiper said. “So we have the opportunity to look at clonal lines. Every individual worm can make hundreds or thousands of copies of itself. That allows a lot of great genetics. If I make a mutation in the genome of one worm, I can pick an offspring from that worm and put it on a plate, and it’ll make a thousand new clones of itself.”

The worms go from fertilized eggs to fertile adults in three days. Also helpful is that C. elegans’ was the first species to have its entire genome sequenced.

When Keiper came to ECU in 2003, he was the only researcher using C. elegans as a model system.

“There are about five of us now, and, remarkably – since federal funding is hard to come by – all of us have gotten some grants,” Keiper said.

He received a three-year, $635,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the mechanisms of protein synthesis. Myon-Hee Lee, associate professor of hematology and oncology, is a co-principal investigator on Keiper’s grant and also has a three-year, $367,000 National Institutes of Health grant to study cell fate decisions and how worms can be used as a model for tumor production.

Lee and Keiper received Brody Brothers Foundation grants funding the preliminary work that led to their federal grants.

On Main Campus, biology faculty member Xiaoping Pan uses C. elegans with funding from industry and government. Chemistry’s David Rudel has received U.S. Geological Survey funding to evaluate the potential toxic effects of nickel exposure at environmental contamination sites.

Ultimately, the research at ECU could lead to cancer therapies, better crop yields or treatments for infertility, Keiper said.