Biologists at the California Institute of Technology have discovered how nematodes communicate. The scientists found that they use a recently discovered class of chemical cues. Their research was published online in the April 12 issue of Current Biology.

Previous research by several members of the research team had recently shown that a much-studied nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, uses certain chemical signals to trade data. What was unknown was whether other worms of the same phylum "talk" to one another in similar ways, according to

But when the researchers looked at a variety of nematodes, they found the very same types of chemicals being combined and used for communication, said Paul Sternberg, the Thomas Hunt Morgan Professor of Biology at Caltech and senior author of the study. "It really does look like we've stumbled upon the letters or words of a universal nematode language, the syntax of which we don't yet fully understand."

Sternberg explained that many, if not all, nematodes communicate by secreting small molecules to build structures called ascarosides.

"Now that we know these chemicals are broadly present in nematodes, we want to find the genes that are responsible for the ability to respond to these chemicals," says Sternberg, who is also an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "That knowledge could open up a whole other angle, not just for dealing with the chemicals, but for actually interfering with those communication systems a little downstream by hitting the receivers."

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