You may very well know C. elegans as a favorite laboratory model organism with exceptional experimental manipulability and tractability. But did you also know that amazing things happen when many of these tiny worms come together?
Collective behavior is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom and is simply fascinating to observe and study. Researchers of animal collective behavior ask how and why animals behave collectively in their study system, and attempt to extract universal principles by examining across different systems.
A number of exciting collective behavior have recently been described and characterized in C. elegans and related nematode species. These include towering, wurmuration, and aggregation. With our powerful study system, we can determine the mechanism of collective behavior across the genetic, neuronal, and behavioral levels. We can also ask questions about the evolution of collective behavior, both through a comparative lens to infer the evolutionary past, and by experimentally evolving the system forward.
We are an interdisciplinary team with combined expertise in quantitative behavior, neuroscience, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, statistical physics, and complex system modelling. We work closely together to unravel the mechanism and evolution of these fascinating and important behaviors in nematodes. With so much to discover, we welcome new group members and collaborators from diverse research backgrounds and career stages to join us.
some of our current projects
Many nematode species live a boom-and-bust lifestyle and depend on dispersal to colonize new resources. Single worms can do this by standing up on their tails and waving around to attach to passing vectors; groups of worms can do this together by forming a living tower. We can now robustly grow worm towers in our lab to study what conditions promote strong towering, which worms are at the top of the tower, and how many worms can disperse at once.
Towering: a collective dispersal behavior
When ten thousand worms are concentrated and released at the same time, they form an impressive traveling wave and consume the food patch together in a single sweep. We name this phenomenon wurmuration (a nod to starling murmuration) and study the individual dynamics in front, within, and behind the wave. We are also establishing the potential adaptive value of this behavior.
Wurmuration: a swarming behavior at very high densities
Wormix: the effect of complex social environment on aggregation
We recently discovered three behavioral interaction rules that explain why one nematode strain aggregates tightly while the other is solitary. But what if we mix these strains together? Do worms modulate their behavior and that of their neighbors in a heterogeneous social context? We are developing an experimental, analytical, and modelling framework to address this question in both C. elegans and another nematode species with a known kin recognition system.
The worm community now has a collection of thousands of fully sequenced and geo-referenced nematode strains sampled from natural environments all over the world. This offers an excellent opportunity to explore how the behaviors vary across genetically diverse strains at both the individual and the group level to identify key genetic regulators of behavior. We exploit high throughput imaging hardware and automated tracking software for rapid phenotyping, in order to map natural genetic variation to behavioral variation.
Wormap: linking natural genetic variation to behavioral variation