Tiny Mazes Reveal Risk-Taking Behavior In Microworms

Apr 8, 2017

All around us, there are tiny creatures and simple organisms sharing planet Earth, including a type of worm that finds a home in rotting fruit. These microworms are about 1 millimeter long and transparent, barely visible to the human eye. 

Jihong Bai, a neurobiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, uses these microworms in his lab to study how neurons in the brain talk to each other. However, a chance observation of the worms led him to a new discovery about animal behavior.

It all started with Bai’s lab technician who was tasked with taking pictures of the worms under a microscope. He put the worms in a little plastic chamber, that kind of looks like an upside down Lego, and he noticed these very simple creatures all hung out in just one area of the chamber.

Different strains of tiny worms react differently to their environment.
Credit Courtesy of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Bai was surprised that these tiny, blind worms made such decisions about their environment. To further understand the behavior, the lab built a small maze of those plastic Lego chambers to see how the different strains of worms from all over the world reacted. 

Bai talked with Sound Effect host Jennifer Wing about his discovery and why he suspects worms from Hawaii are so much more adventurous than their British cousins.