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Oceans Edge
892668.  Fri Mar 09, 2012 6:57 pm Reply with quote

The early worm gets the bird?

1041802.  Tue Dec 17, 2013 2:45 pm Reply with quote

Born in 1925, James V. McConnell was the scientist who notoriously trained flatworms to react to a strong light then ground these worms up and fed them to new worms who react to the light themselves as if they had absorbed the memories held by their meal. Sadly it's not true.

This provoked great controversy when it was done in the 1960's, but even now there are common misconceptions surrounding what is one of the more fascinating chapters in the annals of modern science.

He originally studied Public Relations and Media at LSU and he was a radio personality while he worked through his undergraduate degree, later becoming a radio producer. He got an undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Austin, Texas. In Austin he tried to determine whether flatworms could be conditioned in the traditional Pavlovian way that mammals could be trained. He tried to condition the onset of a bright light with an electric shock which caused the worms to scrunch up in pain. So when a worm has learned this association, it should sense the strong light and scrunch up in anticipation of the shock. Of course this was recorded by a human researcher so was not a true double-blind experiment but no-one complained about the research at the time.

When McConnell got to the University of Michigan, he furthered this research program and this is where things got really interesting. When cut into smaller pieces - whether cut in half or cut in ten pieces - these flatworm pieces would grow new heads and tails and become whole new flatworms. Incidentally, McConnell's research might be responsible for the myth still alive today; that earthworms have this ability.

What he found importantly, was that the tail end of a flatworm, when its head regenerated, remembered just as much as the head end. That is to say, a conditioned worm split in two would produce two conditioned worms as if knowledge or memory was distributed all around the body. Coming recently after the Watson and Crick identification of DNA, McConnell's theory was that perhaps RNA or some other substance granted these worms a kind of molecular memory.

In a gruesome turn, McConnell then began by trying to perform a flatworm head transplant but recorded that the head kept falling off. He then blended the knowledgable worms up and tried to inject the worm puree into other flatworms with a hypodermic needle. This was difficult however as needles in the 1960's were quite thick and many of the worms simply burst. He was told by a colleague that certain species of flatworms were cannibalistic and so now he had a clean way of instilling this molecular memory in worms who had not been taught firsthand.

In 1962 he fed conditioned chopped up worms to naive worms and this was the study that received so much attention. Many other reputable government-funded labs were confirming these outrageous results and RNA was implicated because giving the rats medication to inhibit or accelerate the synthesis of RNA had corresponding effects on the transition of memory from one animal to another.

While many labs failed to replicate the results, others failed to even teach the first flatworms to react to light. But a notable few reported positive results. In 1964 however a former student of McConnell's then conducted a study where he had reportedly done the same with rats and reputable labs in Scandinavia and America confirmed these results. In various studies the rat brain smoothie was injected in the to another rat's gut and in other cases into the brain. No-one doubted that rats could learn and so suddenly labs everywhere started to drop everything and try to replicate and improve upon this study. While flatworms seemed like quite alien creatures, the rat studies suggested that this theory would generalise to humans and there would be a Nobel prize waiting for the key research that revolutionised.

At various meetings researchers from MIT, Harvard and other major institutes quietly discussed their failure to replicate the results and, in an unusual move, decided to collectively write a letter to the journal Science. 23 signatories from 8 laboratories wrote a letter for publication in 1966 saying publicly that they could not get the rats or goldfish or worms to absorb memory either by ingestion nor injection. Never-the-less labs continued to study the idea of molecular memory and McConnell remained a celebrity scientist for some years after having already received 7 years of funding.

From 1959 McConnell published his own tongue-in-cheek journal called The Worm-Runner's Digest which ran articles such as the discussed "Memory transfer through cannibalism in planaria" and ran articles on practical tips for those keeping and training flatworms. It also ran joke articles such as "A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown" and later the journal took steps to be taken more seriously so that the serious work would be cited more readily. Thanks to the enthusiasm generated by McConnell's work, the journal received enough submissions to run for around 18 years.

1041803.  Tue Dec 17, 2013 2:47 pm Reply with quote

Also earthworms may be the most important species on the planet. An episode of Little Atoms had an author make this claim.


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