The Worm Watch Lab

The Medical Research Council in partnership with Zooniverse and the Medical Research Foundation has launched Worm Watch Lab, a new project for the MRC Centenary. The project involves the public taking part through a simple online video that allows participants to make a real contribution to neuroscience research.

The live online ‘citizen scientists’ project is being organised in collaboration with the Zooniverse team in Chicago and Oxford with guidance from scientists at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Dr William Schafer and Dr André Brown. Participants are invited to contribute to a neuroscience study on brain circuitry by observing a video based on how nematode worms
(C. elegans) lay their eggs.

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The Science behind the fun!

Scientists have shown that if a gene is involved in a visible behaviour, then mutations that break that gene might lead to detectable behavioural changes. The nematode worm, C. elegans can be used as a model and it can be shown that worms that carry the mutation can be tracked in a population and studied using all the tools of genetics and molecular biology.

Egg laying in C. elegans requires the proper functioning of a neural circuit to
activate the muscles that open the vulva to expel eggs. This circuit is modulated by the neurotransmitter serotonin. In worms, these state changes are manifested in changes in egg laying. Screening for worms with egg laying defects is time consuming and this is where mass public participation can help.

A human eye can recognise egg-laying after seeing just a couple of examples. Egg laying is fast, typically occurring in less than a twentieth of a second, so no special training is required to accurately time its beginning and end. The LMB now has an ever-growing database that already has more than 10,000 fifteen minute videos recorded from more than 250 mutant types, many affecting genes with unknown function.

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