worms under a microscope

How these worms avoid getting poisoned

Javier Apfeld approached the question like a worm detective. Except, instead of solving a wiggly creature’s murder, the biologist was trying to understand why worms didn’t die, despite a deadly toxin’s common presence in the environments in which they live.

The verdict: The worms know how to detect and dodge the chemical threat. A trick they use, as Apfeld and colleagues describe in a new paper published in PLOS Pathogens, is that they know how to get by with a little help from their food.

And, says Apfeld, an assistant professor of biology at Northeastern, understanding the worms’ methods could help us understand how other creatures—including humans—that face that same toxic threat may stymie that chemical foe.

The worm in question is called Caenorhabditis elegans, and it’s a type of microscopic roundworm often used as a model organism to study human diseases. One of the biggest threats to its existence is a common substance: hydrogen peroxide.

Hydrogen peroxide can be fatal for all kinds of organisms to encounter. The chemical compound reacts easily with other molecules, and can break down cell walls. It’s found all over the natural world, particularly in the microscopic spheres as it is produced by a wide array of microorganisms.

Hydrogen peroxide is so common that many organisms have evolved defense mechanisms against its toxicity. One method is to produce enzymes that degrade the chemical toxin and prevent it from doing damage. Worms are no different.

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Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.

Chemistry and Chemical Biology
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