C. elegans in motion

Caenorhabditis elegans in motion. (Photo: Bob Goldstein/Wikimedia Commons)

Caenorhabditis elegans (or just C. elegans) is a very small roundworm (you could fit 25 of them end to end within the span of one inch) that spends its short life crawling around in the dirt happily munching away at bacteria. This tiny nematode has attracted a great amount of interest in the scientific community because it has transparent skin, which allows for easier observation, and for the relative simplicity of its internal structure — yet the creature is still complex enough to have a nervous system. It was the first multicellular organism to have its DNA sequenced and the only one ever to have its entire neuron network mapped out.

It's this last bit — the structural map of its 302-neuron brain — that might be the most exciting feature of C. elegans in terms of its suitability as a model organism. By way of comparison:

C. elegans: 302 neurons; ~1,000 cells

H. sapiens (aka humans): ~100,000,000,000 neurons; ~37,200,000,000,000 cells

There are a lot of science experiments that use C. elegans but none are as exciting, in my opinion, as the OpenWorm Project, which seeks to build an exact digital model of the small worm. And by exact, I mean down to the neuron connections and cellular level.

The team behind OpenWorm isn't programming a worm to act how they think a worm should act. They're building an exact replica of every single cell in C. elegans and putting them all into a system that simulates the firing of neurons and reactions and responses by muscle and sensory cells. The resulting digital C. elegans should act just like the real life C. elegans because it's built with the same parts, albeit with digital versions.

This soundtrack-less video spends more time showing how the various parts of the model work together to achieve wormitude:

The OpenWorm team achieved its $120,000 Kickstarter goal earlier this year and put together this video which, like all successful Kickstarter videos, does a good job of laying out what the team is up to.

Right now you can buy a $0.99 app for your iPhone and iPad that allows you to explore a 3-D model of the OpenWorm model. I just downloaded it and spent entirely too much time poking around the feature that lets you hide and enable what seems like every cell in the worm.

This project raises some interesting and well-discussed questions on what, exactly, constitutes "life." If a nematode looks like a nematode and acts like a nematode, might it be a nematode even if it doesn't smell like a nematode? How would you feel about a more advanced version of the OpenWorm that rises to the complexity level of the human brain? Would it be OK to put such a creation to work on whatever computing problem its creator wanted? What if the artificial brain didn't want to work?

OpenWorm is a long way away from an artificial human brain, but you don't have to be an AI scientists to see that it's a small step in that direction. What interesting times we live in.

OpenWorm iPhone app

Photo: OpenWorm iPhone app

If you'd like to learn more about OpenWorm, swing over to the website, where you can read about how to jump into the open source project. In addition to coders, they are also looking for help from scientists, writers, webmasters, designers and philanthropists.

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