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Einstein Center Offers Invaluable Resource to World's Worm Researchers

Earlier this year, Einstein's Center for C. Elegans Anatomy was awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to further its research. The center, run by Dr. David Hall, professor of neuroscience, is internationally recognized as one of the key contributors to this field.

teaching faculty
Teaching faculty for the TEM workshop in Beijing:
Erika Hartwieg, Leslie Gunther-Cummins, Dr. David
Hall and Dr. Fengli Guo
"For more than 30 years, C. elegans -- a microscopic roundworm also known as nematode -- has been used as a model system in research. Animals such as the nematode are often used to investigate what happens on a basic level before moving on to the more complex human system. As such, C. elegans has enabled researchers to learn a great deal about the human genome.

Its genome is, as Dr. Hall puts it, "so small and simple that we can figure out what went wrong." Unlike with larger animals, it is possible to mutate a gene and see the direct effect of that mutation in known cell types, to really "get a clue as to what the gene is responsible for." As a result, C. elegans has become a very important tool for researchers worldwide.

The Center for C. Elegans Anatomy evolved from Dr. Hall's vision; after working in the field of C. elegans anatomy for many years, he noticed there was the need for a resource that could provide investigators with a comprehensive guide illustrating how a normal worm would look.

To begin, seven years ago, he and his collaborator, Dr. Zeynep Altun, clinical instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, undertook the project of creating a website, known as WormAtlas, to provide this guide. Using both their own images and those donated by laboratories from around the world, Drs. Hall and Altun attempt to give a complete overview of a normal roundworm. The result can be found at www.wormatlas.org and offers an "integrated overview of the anatomy of the adult nematode," including views of every cell that exists in the worm.

The recently updated NIH-funded website can be partnered with a book, C. elegans Atlas, co-authored by the two researchers. It includes artwork by Chris Crocker, whose illustrations serve as a further resource, to the center, as an aid to understanding worm anatomy.

erika hartwieg
Erika Hartwieg demonstrating sample preparation
to Shufeng Sun, Zhonghua Liu, Jiwei Ding, Rui Li,
and Yanhang Xue
The major overhaul of the website does not mean that Drs. Hall and Altun are finished, however. The center's members are now working on augmenting information about different stages of the worm lifecycle, starting with the embryo.  While some of this information is now available, there will be more to come.

In addition, Dr. Hall's grant for technology development has allowed them to work with Ms. Leslie Gunther-Cummins, a research technician in Einstein's Analytical Imaging Facility, who has helped the researchers in developing the technique of electron tomography. Using this technique, the team creates 3-D images of many of the smaller structures within the cells that were previously indistinguishable.

Drs. Hall and Altun also maintain two other websites, GFPworm and WormImage. These sites provide further images of the worm, which researchers can use as baselines when studying different aspects of C. elegans as well as mutant strains of the animal.

The Center staff's accomplishments have gained international recognition, with the three sites receiving more than 35,000 hits per day. This past spring, their expertise also landed them an invitation to lead a training course in methods of electron microscopy in China. Dr. Hall and three colleagues traveled to Beijing, where they taught students the techniques essential to doing microscopy on very small animals and cells.

At their home in the Bronx, the laboratory staff often hosts guests from around the country, who visit to learn these complex microscopy techniques. The recent grant will allow the researchers to continue to pursue all of their activities while permitting them to further contribute to the field of C. elegans research.

Photo Gallery

Students, faculty and staff assembled for the TEM Workshop at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, April 2009  Students practicing steps in immunocytochemistry: Lili Wang, Zhengzheng Li, and Liying Guan Students and staff in the TEM lab in Beijing: Wencai Qi, Erika Hartwieg, Dr. Fengli Guo, Shufeng Sun and Lily Sun Erika Hartwieg demonstrating sample preparation to Shufeng Sun, Zhonghua Liu, Jiwei Ding, Rui Li, and Yanhang Xue

Dr. Fengli Guo demonstrating cryothin sectioning to Lily Sun Dr. Fengli Guo Leslie Gunther-Cummins discussing high pressure freezing with Lily Sun and Lingtao Jin Teaching faculty for the TEM workshop in Beijing: Erika Hartwieg, Leslie Gunther-Cummins, Dr. David Hall and Dr. Fengli Guo

Dr. David Hall Students, faculty and staff climbing the Great Wall near Beijing, April 2009 Members of the Hall lab: Dr. Zeynep Altun, Tylon Stephney, Chris Crocker, Ken Nguyen, Dr. David Hall, Grace Kim, Dr. Sandhya Koushika, and Kristin Politi Members of the Hall lab. Dr. Laura Herndon, Gloria Stephney, Dr. David Hall, Tylon Stephney, Chris Crocker, Ken Nguyen, Dr. Carolyn Norris, and Dr. Zeynep Altun

Posted on: Wednesday, September 30, 2009