C. elegans are 1.5mm long, free living, non-parasitic nematodes commonly found in soil and compost across the globe. They live about 2 weeks, and during that short time they display obvious signs of aging (see video below), including reduced locomotion, reproductive decline, reduced stress resistance, sarcopenia and a collapse in various homeostatic mechanisms – even their skin wrinkles.
Aging Worms: Young (3 days, center), Middle Aged (8 days, left) & Old (12 days, right) animals
C. elegans with fluorescently tagged proteins
C. elegans have around 1000 cells, yet have well defined neuronal, muscular, hypodermal and intestinal tissue systems. Worms exist as either males or selfing hermaphrodites, making them an ideal genetic system. Although their genome is less than 1/30th the size of the human genome, it contains nearly the same amount of genes, with many showing strong homology to mammalian counterparts. This makes is a powerful system to study the molecular genetics of aging. We have a wealth of genetic tools that enable us to rapidly switch on or off individual genes within a worm, in specific tissues and at specific time points as it ages. This allows us to assign causality to processes that mediate healthy aging. C. elegans are also transparent, which means we can add fluorescent tags to proteins in order to track their abundance and cellular localization in a living animal as it ages. Together these properties make C. elegans an ideal system for cost effective and rapid identification of the underlying molecular mechanisms responsible for the increased frailty and disease resistance seen in old age. Having identified such targets, we then aim to test their conservation in mammalian systems and ultimately design novel therapeutics for age-related pathologies.