The first complete computer simulation of an entire animal, in your browser

Recent news about OpenWorm, a project that aims at recreating in a computer the behaviour of a complete animal, the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. The OpenWorm project aims at constructing a complete model of this worm, not only of the 302 neurons and the 95 muscle cells, but also of the remaining thousand cells in each worm (more exactly, 959 somatic cell plus about 2000 germ cells in the hermaphrodite sex and 1031 cells in the males).


The one millimeter long worm C. elegans has a long history in science, as one of the animals more extensively used as a model for the study of simple multicellular organisms. It was the first animal to have its genome sequenced, in 1998.

But well before that, in 1963, Sydney Brenner proposed it as a model organism for the investigation of neural development in animals. In an effort that lasted for more than twelve years, the complete structure of the brain of C. elegans was reverse engineered, leading to a diagram of the wiring of each neuron in this simple brain. The effort of reverse engineering the worm brain included slicing, very thinly, several worm brains, obtaining roughly 8000 photos of the slices using an electron microscope and connecting, mostly by hand, each neuron section of each slice to the corresponding neuron section in the neighbor slices. The complete wiring diagram of the 302 neurons and the roughly 7000 synapses, which constitute the brain of this simple creature, was described in minute detail in a 340 pages article, published in 1986, entitled The Structure of the Nervous System of the Nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, with a running head The Mind of a Worm.


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