Future Applications of Our Research
At the beginning of the summer we decided to work with C. elegans as our chassis, mostly for the advantages provided by its advanced eukaryotic chemotaxis mechanism. However, as the summer progressed and we learned more about the worm, it proved to be a very shrewd choice. One feature of the worm that we found in working with it was its amazing resilience to harsh environments. Chemotaxis assays done with undiluted naphthalene did not kill or paralyze all of the worms and even allowed for chemotaxis in some! Hardiness of this magnitude was not at all what we were expecting from a 1mm long nematode. We even found the worms able to survive in bitumen straight from tailing ponds for at least a week. Further exploration into the bioremediative potential and capabilities of C. elegans in oil spills is warranted given C. elegans’ innate chemotaxis mechanisms towards aromatics, such as those found in bitumen, as well as its resilience to harsh tailing pond conditions.
What Can Be Designed in the Future
The versatility featured by C. elegans as a chassis opens many doors for future genetic engineering endeavors with the worm. The chemotaxis mechanism of C. elegans makes ideas for future projects virtually limitless. The worm could be engineered to move towards the molecule of interest in any circumstance where the location of a point source is not known exactly or is not concentrated in exactly one area. One particularly far-reaching example of this would be engineering the worm to chemotax towards waterborne pathogens. Although it is an ambitious feat to program one living organism to pursue another, the results, if successful, would be paramount. Proteins on the pathogen’s exterior or even secreted by the pathogen could act as ligands that bind to GPCRs expressed in C. elegans’ chemosensory neurons. This would be particularly useful in rural applications due to the risk of pathogen contamination which can affect local agriculture as well as any neighboring wells. To further extend the idea of toxic products leeching into the environment, this bio-remediation could be applied to landfills. We could potentially C. elegans to seek out and neutralize harmful chemicals from batteries or plastics that disturb the surrounding environment.
Additionally, C. elegans could be used as a biosensor, again with the added advantage of motility compared to bacteria, such as E. coli. A graded biosensor can be made by having the worm express a different colour based on the concentration of the molecule. This may serve as a way to see where sewage pipes are leaking and the extent of their leakage. Its use as a biosensor may even have agricultural applications. Programming C. elegans to detect certain beneficial minerals or compounds in farming may serve as a way for farmers to assess the quality of their fields better. If a certain compound is limited or present in excess he/she would be able to detect that using C. elegans and adjust his planting routine accordingly. Because C. elegans is non-pathogenic to humans and does not feed on any agricultural products it would be safe to use in this context (provided it had a proper kill switch to prevent an invasive species outbreak).
When working with chemotaxis mechanisms in C. elegans it seems the only limiting factor is finding GPCRs that bind to your target ligand. Having the common traits of being eukaryotic and multicellular with a variety of species, grants C. elegans an immense number of sources of potential GPCRs. The capactiy to express human genes coding for GPCRs in C. elegans can allow for future teams to program the worm to respond to stimuli recognized by human GPCRs. This would likely prove to be a worthwhile endeavor.