Who knew that nematode worms could hold their own in minutes-long videos? John I. Murray, PhD, assistant professor of Genetics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and postdoc Amanda L. Zacharias, PhD, produced one of the two award-winning videos in the recent Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) second annual BioArt competition. Zacharias is working on identifying the targets of Wnt signaling, an important molecular regulator of embryonic development, using the worm as her model organism.
The time-lapse video that Zacharias created shows the development of an embryo of the microscopic worm Caenorhabditis elegans from the one-cell stage to hatching, a several-hours-long process. The cell nuclei are marked in green and an important transcription factor involved in later embryonic development appears in red.
“We produce these videos as part of our research trying to understand how transcription factors combine to specify cell fates in development,” Zacharias said. “They are really cool looking on their own, and it was exciting to be recognized by FASEB. Hopefully, our work will help communicate to the public how continued funding of model organism research can shed light on important biological mechanisms.”
In addition to leading the wet lab part of the worm experiments, Murray also devised the microscope equipment and software to photograph the worm development images and analyze gene expression levels and location. The confocal microscope’s resonance-scanning laser passes over the developing worm, taking an image every 1.5 minutes for 14 hours, starting at the two-cell stage of the embryo. Videos usually image the first seven hours of the process, before the embryo begins to move on its own.
The Murray lab video originally came about because, in part, worm biologists have a tradition of making videos for the Worm Variety Show at the International C. elegans Meeting at UCLA. For example, this masterpiece of worm biology, postdoc blues, and an homage to worm Nobelist Sydney Brenner, is set to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
YouTube hosts a compilation of three videos that Zacharias made for the variety show: one set to the David Bowie tune, Let’s Dance, that is similar to their winning FASEB video; another that follows a mutant unc-37 embryo to show that the embryo doesn’t hatch properly, set to I Am A Scientist, by Guided by Voices; and a third set to the iconic Brady Bunch TV show theme song, showing the development of nine reporter genes in wild-type worms. The video is a nine-panel composite just like the Brady Bunch intro showing mom and dad Brady, their six kids and Alice, the housekeeper. The finale features the embryos hatching to the climatic ending of Butterflies and Hurricanes by Muse.