"We're starting to get a hold on the chemical 'alphabet' that makes up these words, which have different meanings in different social contexts," says Srinivasan. "It's a modular code that tells us that within the physiology of the organism, there is a lot going on in terms of how the environment is interpreted and read out for social communication."
For example, one class of chemicals the researchers found encourages worm-to-worm company, while a different class of compounds being expressed at the same time keeps other worms away. This suggests that the worms release different amounts of each compound based on what each worm is trying to communicate. If the worm is starting a new colony, it probably just wants a certain number of worms around to find and share foodtoo many and the colony may not thrive. However, if there is a big piece of fruit, the worm may call on a large group to help access the food source.
"The amazing thing here is that for one chemical, if it's modified even just a little bit, the meaning is changed," says Sternberg, who is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "That's what makes it more like a language. If I say a Chinese word, and my intonation is wrong, the word has a different meaning."
Next, the team will explore whether or not the same chemical compounds are made by
|Contact: Deborah Williams-Hedges|
California Institute of Technology