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When is a Worm’s Wiggle Due to Mutation?

When is a Worm's Wiggle Due to Mutation?

San Diego is known for whale watching, but worm watching? Yes. It's also pretty exciting to some scientists.

Over the last five years, UCSD electrical engineers and biologists have used machine vision, video processing, and pattern recognition approaches to create new systems for monitoring the movements of microscopic worms called C. elegans. These organisms serve as a crucial model for studying nervous system function and development in higher organisms, including humans.

The well-studied worms wiggle a little bit differently depending on the mutation they may have, but it's very hard for researchers using microscopes to quantitatively determine how a particular mutation changes movement patterns, says Pamela Cosman, an electrical engineering professor at the Jacobs School and the director of the Center for Wireless Communications.

"Our collaboration with the Department of Biology led to new ways to identify and characterize how specific mutations change the way worms behave," says Cosman about her work with biology professor William Schafer who recently moved from UCSD to the University of Cambridge.

Over the past five years, Cosman and her electrical engineering graduate students have devised algorithms for detecting and characterizing complex behaviors such as egg laying, foraging, and coiling and algorithms for monitoring worm body posture and movements.

The researchers built a tracking and imaging system that can follow and record a worm's movements over long periods of time and save digital image data representing the animal's body posture over the course of the recording.

One algorithm measures hundreds of features of a given mutant's body shape or locomotion pattern.

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