Inducing paralysis by shutting down motor neurons in the worm's ventral nerve cord from Samuel Lab on Vimeo.
Knowing how individual cells act in animals is important, especially if you want to understand, at the molecular level, what contributes to how an animal behaves. Using a system called CoLBeRT, Controlling Locomotion and Behavior in Real Time, researchers at the University of Toronto have figured out how to manipulate worms on the most fundamental level and can watch the cells respond to laser light in real-time.
Scientists can see what's happening to a cell by shining a light on the neuron. A computer system does the brain work: it can control the laser and make appropriate adjustments to the microscope, so the worm doesn't stray too far from where it's supposed to.
And surprisingly, scientists are using nothing more than laser light to control the wiggly creature's movements. The laser can make the worm turn in certain directions or lay an egg, according to Wired.
It helps that scientists are using a well-studied worm: they know where the worm's 302 nerve cells are. This knowledge helped in a second series of tests, when the scientists teased the worm with the laser. They used laser light to "touch" it. One nerve cell had enough touching and stopped responding. When the scientists checked a neighboring cell, it was also tired.
This is cool because researchers can look at behavior on a cell-by-cell basis. But just how useful it will be...remains to be seen.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com