If you think you have nothing in common with worms, think again. One worm in particular, known by its scientific name “Caenorhabditis elegans” or “C. elegans,” has many biological properties in common with humans—it has DNA, develops from an embryo, and possesses a digestive and nervous system.
Not only that, ten thousand C. elegans worms can fit in a petri dish, “their life cycle is only three days, and in that time they produce 350 offspring, so they are excellent model organisms for a genetic study,” says Assistant Professor of Science Jun Liang Rice.
A worm’s genetic response to stress
Professor Rice is leading a research project using c. elegans worms, with forensic science major Tasmia Hoque, who examines them through a dissecting microscope.
In short, they are introducing stress triggers to the worms, to see if they have a genetic response, and measuring how that response affects their life span.
“For example, we measured how tolerant the worms are to heat shock, subjecting them to 35 degrees centigrade, when their normal environment is 20 to 25 degrees centigrade,” says Hoque.
Professor Rice adds, “We are trying to answer the question, ‘What do genes actually do, to help animals respond to stress?’ In addition to heat shock, we are introducing different chemicals into the diet of the worms, triggering stress responses, which we measure through the worm’s longevity.”
The study also involves lengthening the worms’ lives. “You can ‘knock down’ some of the genes—for instance, insulin receptor genes—and they live longer,” says Professor Rice.
Insulin receptor genes, she explains, “regulate basic life functions, and are found in most organisms: vertebrate, invertebrate, and others. Scientists have found that ‘knocking down’ the insulin receptor genes doubles the worms’ longevity—and in a human study, they found a similar result.”
According to the National Institute on Aging, Rice says, “the elderly population, people age 80 and older, is predicted to triple in 40 years or so—so any projects that impact on the quality of life for the elderly are seen as important now.”
Solving mysteries and puzzles
Tasmia Hoque grew up in Bangladesh, moved to New York with her family in 2008, and now lives in Queens. She entered BMCC in 2010, and is majoring in forensic science.
“I want to work someday analyzing fingerprints, DNA, and blood splatters in a crime lab, working with police in homicide unit,” she says. “Crime solving rates haven’t caught up yet, with the technology, and I want to be part of making that happen.”
Professor Jun Liang Rice earned a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the CUNY Graduate Center.
“I’ve wanted to study science since I was a child,” she says. “I’m good with math and physics, and logic is a tool you can use in biology. Also, I think of all the sciences, biology is the most puzzling, and this makes it attractive to me.”
The only community college presenting at a prestigious conference
In April, under Professor Rice’s guidance, Tasmia Hoque made a poster presentation of their work at the 2013 Northeast Regional Meeting of the Society for Developmental Biology.
Held at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the conference attracted graduate students, scientists and others from an array of Ivy League and private colleges and universities.
“We were the only ones there from a community college,” Hoque says. “This was my first conference, and I was really nervous, but I could answer their questions, and I felt they were appreciative of my answers.”
Professor Rice agrees. “For Tasmia,” she says, “it was good to talk with different levels of people working on projects; it helps you understand different research models. Also, seeing graduate students in the field helps you see the paths that science can go in.”
The questions also helped them see potential directions for their project.
“For example, someone asked if the protein we’re looking at is on the membrane of the nucleus, or inside the nucleus,” she said. “That’s a good question. It gives us an idea about where our research could go next.”