BYLINE: Lauren Quinn

Newswise — URBANA, Ill. – The National Institutes of Health recently pledged $2.6 million towards the Center for C. elegans Anatomy, also known as WormAtlas. The center provides anatomical resources for researchers studying C. elegans, the tiny nematode worm that serves as a model organism for higher animals, including humans. Of the total award, $950,000 goes to co-principal investigator Nathan Schroeder of the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).

“WormAtlas, started in 1998 by Dave Hall from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is an essential resource for the thousands of researchers using this model system. People use C. elegans to study everything from basic cell division to interactions with pathogens, and there are implications for cancer, neuroscience, and more,” says Schroeder, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at ACES. “One goal for this cycle of the grant is to incorporate other nematode species into WormAtlas, so people working on, let's say, agricultural pests will be able to make comparisons between C. elegans and less studied nematodes.”

WormAtlas features a large data set of electron microscopy images of C. elegans originally collected in the 1970s and 80s on film. Over the years, Hall’s lab has digitized thousands of these images and made them available online. Recently, Schroeder has acquired similar physical images of important nematode parasites from retired researchers at other institutions.

“These electron micrographs, some collected on glass plate negatives, were destined for landfills. Our hope is that by digitizing these images and sharing with the research community, we will stimulate new discoveries in these parasites,” Schroeder says.

With his diverse set of research interests, Schroeder is a natural fit to lead the expansion of WormAtlas. He has studied the anatomy of C. elegans under stress; pesticide effects on the soybean cyst nematode, a major crop pest; the sexual development of a jumping roundworm used as a biocontrol agent in lawns; and much more.

Further, Schroeder says Illinois is the right campus to advance the atlas.

“We will be able to leverage key resources at Illinois to help strengthen the project. For example, part of the current project will include folks from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications Advanced Visualization Lab to develop 3D models of C. elegans anatomy. Similarly, the Research Data Service at the University Library has been an excellent resource to make sure we are following current NIH best practices on data availability.”

For Schroeder, the expansion has been a long time coming.

“I did work in Dave’s lab as a postdoc, and I've bugged him ever since to get other nematodes in the atlas. I think he finally got tired of me bugging him,” Schroeder laughs. “He brought me on to try to develop this line of thinking, and now we’re ready to move forward.”