University Of Wyoming Professor Uses Microscopic Worms To Study Human Genes

Oct 14, 2020

Fay looks at the genes of nematodes, or roundworms.
Credit Bob Goldstein, UNC Chapel Hill

A University of Wyoming professor is studying microscopic worms to see how their DNA is similar to humans.

David Fay, a UW professor of Molecular Biology, said these worms shed their skin as they grow.

"They have to make a new skin by synthesizing a new one underneath the old one and then sort of carefully letting go of the old one and shedding it. Kind of like a snake, but the worm skin actually serves two purposes," he said. "It has its normal protective function, but it also is the exoskeleton of the worm."

Fay said they found some worms that don't shed correctly. By looking at those worms, they identified which of their genes was defective.

Fay said the gene controls how materials move in and out of cells. It's similar to a stoplight directing traffic. He said the same gene can be found in humans and other mammals.

"It's not a worm specific, weird thing, it's something that's more general. And that's almost always the case," said Fay. "That's why the National Institute of Health funds research into worms. Whatever they're doing in these simpler organisms, they're doing the same thing 99% of the time in human beings."

He said researchers don't know how a defective version of the gene would affect humans overall, but now they know the process the gene controls.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.