Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Mapping the mind of a worm, one synapse at a time

by Andre on 25 June 2014

John White is a legendary scientist who, with Eileen Southgate, mapped the wiring diagram of the entire nervous system of C. elegans. This is still the only complete wiring diagram, or connectome, that we have for any animal, a feat that’s all the more impressive given that it was started in the early ’70s. And you can now read a first-person description of how it happened in the history section of WormBook:

Getting into the mind of a worm—a personal view

Check it out and read about the atmosphere at the LMB and the joys of working with early computers. The basic procedure for reconstructing the mind of a worm was to cut it into very thin sections, image them with an electron microscope, and then find the cells, processes, and synapses in consecutive sections to figure out what’s connected to what. Here’s an example of a series of images from Dan Bumbarger who works on worm connectomics today:

Reconstructing all the connections is not an easy task even if you don’t have to write your own graphics software, but in 1970, it was, shall we say, an ambitious PhD project. Which brings me to my favourite quote from the piece:

Sydney [Brenner] seemed a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamelin on speed—leading all who followed into the unknown.

This is the first worm history entry that’s actually written for and hosted on the WormBook site. I hope it’s the first of many.



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