C. elegans: The Model System for Linking Developmental Studies with Genetics


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Photo a shows transparent worm about a millimeter in length. Illustration B shows the life cycle of C. elegans, which begins when the egg hatches, releasing a L1 juvenile. After 12 hours the L1 juvenile transforms into an L2 juvenile. After 7 hours the L2 juvenile transforms into an L3 juvenile. After another 7 hours the L3 juvenile transforms into an L4 juvenile. After 14 hours the L4 juvenile transforms into an adult. The hermaphroditic adult mates with another adult to produce fertilized eggs which hatch, completing the cycle.
Caenorhabditis elegans. (a) This light micrograph shows the bodies of a group of roundworms. These hermaphrodites consist of exactly 959 cells. (b) The life cycle of Celegans has four juvenile stages (L1 through L4) and an adult stage. Under ideal conditions, the nematode spends a set amount of time at each juvenile stage, but under stressful conditions, it may enter a dauer state that does not age significantly and is somewhat analogous to the diapausing state of some insects. (credit a: modification of work by “snickclunk”/Flickr: credit b: modification of work by NIDDK, NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

OpenStax Biology 2e

If biologists wanted to research how nicotine dependence develops in the body, how lipids are regulated, or observe the attractant or repellant properties of certain odors, they would clearly need to design three very different experiments. However, they might only need one subject of study: Caenorhabditis elegans. The nematode C. elegans was brought into the focus of mainstream biological research by Dr. Sydney Brenner. Since 1963, Dr. Brenner and scientists worldwide have used this animal as a model system to study many different physiological and developmental mechanisms.

C. elegans is a free-living nematode found in soil. Only about a millimeter long, it can be cultured on agar plates (10,000 worms/plate!), feeding on the common intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli (another long-term resident of biological laboratories worldwide), and therefore can be readily grown and maintained in a laboratory. The biggest asset of this nematode is its transparency, which helps researchers to observe and monitor changes within the animal with ease. It is also a simple organism with about 1,000 cells and a genome of only 20,000 genes. Its chromosomes are organized into five pairs of autosomes plus a pair of sex chromosomes, making it an ideal candidate with which to study genetics. Since every cell can be visualized and identified, this organism is useful for studying cellular phenomena like cell-to-cell interactions, cell-fate determinations, cell division, apoptosis (cell death), and intracellular transport.

Another tremendous asset is the short life cycle of this worm. It takes only three days to achieve the “egg to adult to daughter egg”; therefore, the developmental consequences of genetic changes can be quickly identified. The total life span of Celegans is two to three weeks; hence, age-related phenomena are also easy to observe. There are two sexes in this species: hermaphrodites (XX) and males (XO). However, anatomical males are relatively infrequently obtained from matings between hermaphrodites, since their XO chromosome composition requires meiotic nondisjunction when both parents are XX. Another feature that makes Celegans an excellent experimental model is that the position and number of the 959 cells present in adult hermaphrodites of this organism is constant. This feature is extremely significant when studying cell differentiation, cell-to-cell communication, and apoptosis. Lastly, Celegans is also amenable to genetic manipulations using molecular methods, rounding off its usefulness as a model system.

Biologists worldwide have created information banks and groups dedicated to research using Celegans. Their findings have led, for example, to better understandings of cell communication during development, neuronal signaling, and insight into lipid regulation (which is important in addressing health issues like the development of obesity and diabetes). In recent years, studies have enlightened the medical community with a better understanding of polycystic kidney disease. This simple organism has led biologists to complex and significant findings, growing the field of science in ways that touch the everyday world.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e