C.Elegan turns to nature trails

Friday 24th February 2017
Mills Observatory.

A new nature trail highlighting the use of a tiny worm in ground-breaking scientific research goes on display this weekend around the Mills Observatory in Dundee. Designed by Caitlyn Vesey, a third-year Fine Art student from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design at the University of Dundee, the trail features rhyming clues which snake around Balgay Hill and into the Observatory.

Caitlyn will be helping launch The Giant Worm Nature Trail at 1pm this Sunday, 26th  February. The launch features a family event led by researchers from the University’s Centre for Gene Regulation and Expression (GRE), where attendees can learn all about (right) tiny ‘C. Elegans’ worm and create their own unique worm to take home.  “I am delighted to have been given the chance to work on and be involved in a public engagement project which I hope will bring a new audience to the Observatory," Caitlyn says.

“My aim for the project was to add a fun new aspect to the grounds of the Observatory by creating an interactive nature trail. I hope this will encourage viewers to then enter the Observatory and learn more about the Giant Worm through the exhibition inside. I am excited to see the faces of those who complete the trail and learn what they enjoyed from their experience.”

Professor Tom Owen-Hughes, Head of GRE, said, “The Mills Observatory provides a unique opportunity to contrast the scale of the cosmos with our own work studying the molecular basis for life on earth. We hope visitors to the observatory will enjoy the opportunity to explore the microscopic world we share with all living creatures.

“C. elegans worms are used by biomedical researchers in the School of Life Sciences at the University to investigate human development, genetics, aging and diseases such as Parkinson’s and cancer but they have also been used by NASA researchers to understand the effects of life in outer space.” The Giant Worm Nature Trail and Giant Worm exhibition are part of the ongoing Outer Space | Inner Space project, an interdisciplinary collaboration using research technology to make scientific research accessible to all. The Giant Worm Nature Trail will be available to view from this Sunday until Friday, 31st March 2017. Admission is free and there is no need to book in advance.

Six years ago a Leeds University researcher (right) Dr Jordan Boyle researched how a Caenorhabditis.elegans ‘modelled worm-bot’ could be used by search and rescue crews to send heat-seeking equipment into collapsed buildings or deliver aid to trapped survivors building a larger robotic worm that could wiggle its way around obstacles, becoming a worm not for turning.

The super-sized ‘worm-bot’ modelled on the C.elegans  nematode, the tiny free-living worm (when it gets a chance not be volunteering in research laboratories) uses an ultra-simple nervous system to control the way that it moves. Dr Boyle’s worm-bot was 2000 times larger than the 1mm-long C. elegans worm. Unlike the worm, with no skeleton  - the robot has a rigid snake-like ‘backbone’. A series of springs along its body length is needed to give the robot its worm-flex.

The system driving the robot forward however is essentially the same as that of the C. elegans nematode – with some few tweaks to improve the robot’s performance. As a result, that worm-bot deals with obstacles in a very different way to other flexible, floor-crawling robots. Snake- or worm-like robots are typically propelled forwards by an ‘ideal’ wave, that their control system has worked out in advance.  Meeting an obstacle, the control system senses that something is hampering the way it wants to move and directs the robot to change its shape accordingly. By contrast, the bio-inspired worm-bot is not interested in surroundings and simply wants to wriggle from side to side. Hitting an obstacle, it doesn’t need to consider how to altered the shape of its body to carry on – it just keeps on going, regardless.

“The combination of the flexible control system and the ‘bendy’ body means that the robot adapts automatically to any obstacles that are preventing it from moving forward. Basically the worm-bot is thinking: ‘go, go, go!’’said Dr Boyle. “At the moment, this does mean that the worm-bot has no idea where it will end up so there is a small chance that it might get stuck. A future version would need to include an extra layer of ‘intelligence’ to the control system that could step in if the robot needed extra help to wriggle its way out of a corner,” he added. His project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It follows on from Dr Boyle’s EPSRC-funded PhD at the University’s School of Computing to model the motion of the C. elegans worm.

Back in 2015 CNN reported "The Open Worm Project" aimed to recreate the behaviour of the worm's neurons in its software and it had its first major breakthrough  when the software independently controlled a Legatoy. The robot mimicked some of the behaviours of the worm, responding to external stimulus through sensors.





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