Biologists has found that a wide range of nematodes, or roundworms, communicate using a recently discovered class of chemical cues.
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) biologists collaborated with the laboratory of Frank C. Schroeder, assistant scientist at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI) of Cornell University.
Previous research by several members of this team had recently shown that a much-studied nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, uses certain chemical signals to trade data. What was unknown was whether other worms of the same phylum “talk” to one another in similar ways.
But when the researchers looked at a variety of nematodes, they found the very same types of chemicals being combined and used for communication, said Paul Sternberg, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology at Caltech and senior author on the study.
“It really does look like we’ve stumbled upon the letters or words of a universal nematode language, the syntax of which we don’t yet fully understand,” he stated.
Nematodes are wide-ranging creatures; they have been found in hot springs, arctic ice, and deep-sea sediments. Many types of nematodes are harmless, or even beneficial, but others cause damage to plants and harm to humans and animals.
Decoding the language of these worms could allow us to develop strategies to prevent the spread of unwanted nematode species, saving time and money for the agricultural and health-care industries.
“We can now say that many—maybe all—nematodes are communicating by secreting small molecules to build chemical structures called ascarosides,” noted Sternberg, whose past research in C. elegans found that those worms secrete ascarosides both as a sexual attractant and as a way to control the social behavior of aggregation.
“It’s really exciting and a big breakthrough that tells us what to look for and how we, too, might be able to communicate with this entire phylum of animals,” he added.
Next, the researchers will work to learn more about how the worms actually sense the ascarosides.
The team also plans to continue deconstructing the language they have found among nematodes. For example, Sternberg wonders, how many different combinations of chemicals mean “food,” or “mate,” or “attack”?
If the scientists can crack the code in terms of what different blends mean to different species, they can begin to interfere with the actions of the nematodes that wreak havoc across the world—leading to better eradication of plant pests, as well as human and animal parasites.
The finding was published online April 12 in the journal Current Biology.