Understanding the human nervous system is a daunting task that many neurobiologists are working on, but what if the key to understanding our behavior isn’t found in just human physiology? What if we were to study a similar system made of many of the same components, but on a much less complex scale?
That is one of the driving factors in Dr. Cornelia “Cori” Bargmann’s work with Caenorhabditis elegans a member of the nematode phylum. C. elegans is a transparent non-parasitic roundworm that has been the focus of Bargmann’s research since her days working as a post-doctoral researcher in molecular biology and neuroscience at MIT. In 1981 she was awarded a degree in biochemistry from the University of Georgia followed six years later by her doctorate in cancer biology from MIT. For her post-doc work she wanted to focus on animal behavior but she found that she didn’t like hurting furry animals and decided that she no longer wanted to work with the mice that are the common organism for these types of studies. That decision led her to working with nematodes at one of the first serious worm labs in America, which happened to be located at her alma matter.
Her work with c.elegans has led to many breakthroughs in the understanding of round worms and the functions of their 302 neurons. By carefully using a laser to destroy specific neurons and tracking the changes in the worm’s behavior she was able to trace the pathways for many behaviors including hibernation and taste. Bargmann was the first to discover that nematodes have a very sophisticated sense of smell with over 2000 odorant receptor genes, around twice that of rats. These worms can sense thousands of different smells and will respond accordingly and these reactions can be traced from neurons to circuits to a worm’s behavioral decisions.
Bargmann is currently the co-director of the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for Mind, Brain and Behavior at Rockefeller University and continues her work on developing a deeper understanding of the brain’s sensory abilities and neuronal development.
Written by Angela Goad