For most people, just a whiff of food that has made them sick in the past is enough to trigger a wave of nausea – and to prevent them from eating that food again. Its a response thats instantaneous, involuntary, and so fundamental to basic biology that it occurs in a broad range of species. Even worms, researchers have now shown, quickly learn to avoid smells associated with foods that have made them ill.
The new study, led by Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Cornelia I. Bargmann and Yun Zhang, a postdoctoral fellow in Bargmanns laboratory at The Rockefeller University, represents a clear capacity for learning in the laboratory animal C. elegans, a microscopic worm with only 302 neurons. The work suggests that the cellular mechanisms underlying this type of learning have been maintained through evolution, and opens the way for more in depth studies of how learning occurs. The study will be published in the November 10, 2005, issue of the journal Nature.
One of C. elegans fundamental behaviors is movement toward food based on its sense of smell. In the laboratory, this often means wriggling across a plate full of agar toward a cluster of E. coli. But in its natural environment, the soil, C. elegans encounters an astounding variety of bacteria. As it writhes through its world, the worm might meet up with hundreds of different species of bacteria in as little as five minutes. But while some bacteria make ideal worm food, others are toxic.
Jennifer Michalowski | EurekAlert!
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