Worm sex and human sex are surprisingly similar—in some ways. HHMI investigator Cornelia Bargmann recently showed that worms and mammals use the same types of brain chemicals, known as neuropeptides, to coordinate their reproductive behaviors.
Bargmann and her lab group at the Rockefeller University found a molecule in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans that is chemically similar to vasopressin and oxytocin—neuropeptides involved in mammalian reproductive behavior. Dubbed nematocin, the worm peptide binds to receptors in nerves and muscles and plays a role in coordinating complex behaviors. When Bargmann’s team created male worms lacking nematocin, the worms spent less time looking for mates. And when they encountered a partner, only a fraction of the nematocin-deficient males were able to complete the mating process. The group published the findings October 26, 2012, in Science.
That worms and mammals use similar neuropeptides suggests that a nematocin-like molecule has been conserved in animal nervous systems since worms separated from vertebrates about 600 million years ago. Next, Bargmann plans to figure out how the neuropeptide regulates behavior and then trace the evolution of that regulation.