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Worm Language

February 15, 2012

Nematode worms have a surprisingly complex communication system.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):

Worm linguistics.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

They may not be literary giants, but small roundworms called nematodes have a surprisingly rich language all their own.  As Cornell University chemical biologist Frank Schroeder explains, the worms communicate using chemical signals.  His team found it’s not just the chemicals themselves, but how they’re combined, that determines the message.

FRANK SCHROEDER (Cornell University):

They have their own grammar, if you want.  And certain combinations of chemical ‘words’ mean certain things, and other combinations mean different things.

HIRSHON:

For example, a signal composed of two chemical building blocks tells nearby worms to go away.  But adding a third chemical makes other worms gather ’round instead.  The worms may use the signals to exploit resources and avoid threats.  Schroeder says that if we can manipulate these signals, it may help control nematode crop pests, or parasitic worms that infect people.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.