C. elegans has been known to science since 1897, when the French biologist Émile Maupas, working in Algiers, first identifiedRhabditis elegans” by its transparent body and slender form. He described it in intense detail, documenting measurements for much of its anatomical components in his 1900 monograph on nematode reproduction. Work on identifying and classifying nematodes was a matter of some particular concern in the nineteenth century because of the impact of parasitic species on humans; indeed, in the late 1980s, nematode species parasitic to plants caused five billion dollars per year of damage to agriculture in the United States alone.

Maupas’s monograph was highly concerned with hermaphroditic and parthenogenic species of nematodes, which would later prove relevant to Sydney Brenner when he was picking a model organism to study in the nineteen sixties. In addition to hermaphrodites, C. elegans also reproduces sexually, but only one in five hundred worms has a male genotype (produced by the lack of one X chromosome). The rarity of males allows for both self-crossing and cross-fertilization experiments to be performed, like in plants.

Sydney Brenner chose to start working with C. elegans in 1965 for its simplicity, fecundity, and this bimodal reproduction. His primary interest at the time was animal development, especially neural development, and this has been a major theme in C. elegans research to the present day. The similarities to human beings that C. elegans displayed to other model organisms coupled with the easy study of its transparent body and short generational cycle proved highly useful for the extensive research into the molecular and developmental biology that we know today.

C. elegans typically exists in two sexes; hermaphrodite (two X chromosomes) and male (one X chromosome.) A hermaphrodite is capable of producing progeny by self-fertilization (in which case the offspring are genetically identical hermaphrodites) or by mating with a male. If a hermaphrodite and a male mate, the offspring have an equal probability of being hermaphroditic or male. Each self-fertilization can spawn up to 350 viable offspring, with matings producing even more. This fecundity, higher than that of the laboratory bacteriophages that Brenner worked with prior to his study of C. elegans, greatly enhances the worm’s utility.

The modern C. elegans research community is tightly-knit, permitting the free flow of information and discoveries in a way that is typically impeded by the reduced levels of trust common in other areas of genetics, which has developed naturally as a consequence of the sheer size of the field. The familiarity inside of the worm community means that new findings and data are made readily available to other researchers. It is our hope that this will prove to be just as much of a boon to the first synthetic biologists studying C. elegans as it has to the research community for the past forty-five years.

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