Devils worm genome sequenced
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Devil Worm’s genome sequenced by American University researchers provide clues to life beyond earth

The “Devil Worm”  is the deepest living animal, discovered from an aquifer nearly one mile underground. American University researchers recently published a paper in nature communications reporting that they have sequenced the genome of devil worm.

The unique animal’s genome will provide the clues to how an organism can survive in lethal environmental conditions. How the devil worm evolved to adapt harsh environment has an enormous scope of research since the studies might help humans adapt to the increasing global warming.

It was in 2008 when Gaetan Borgonie and Tullis Onstott from the University of Ghent and Princeton University respectively discovered the devil worm accidentally while investigating subterrestrial bacterial communities in South African gold mines.

They were surprised to see the complex, multicellular organism surviving in an environment of high temperature, high concentration of methane, and low oxygen levels, which was thought to be livable only by microbes.

This is the first time a subterrestrial organism’s genome is sequenced. John Bracht, assistant professor of biology at American University who headed the project, said that the genome provides clues on how life can survive below earth’s surface

and opens an opportunity for understanding how life can exist beyond earth.

The genome sequencing discloses the presence of a large number of heat shock genes Hsp70 in the devil worm’s genome, which is exceptional compared to the genome of other nematodes.Hsp70 is a gene that helps to restore cellular health after the heat shock damage.

Many copies of Hsp70 were found in the genome along with A1G1 genes known for cellular survival. Although more research is required, the presence of these many copies of the genes is evidence of evolutionary adaptation.

Since the worm is present underground, it cannot run away from there. The only choice left for the organism is to adapt by making extra copies of heat shock proteins.

The scientists scanned the genomes of other organisms and identified animals with similar kinds of Hsp70 and AIG1 genes. Bivalves, some mollusks like oysters, mussels, and clans were the identified organisms, and this suggested that this pattern of the genome might be present in organisms that are trapped in a warm environment. The study was published in the journal of molecular evolution with Megan Guerin, an AU undergraduate as the first author.

Bracht was a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University when he got a chance to sequence the devil worm’s genome. He later carried over the project to American University when he joined the AU biology faculty in 2014.

Deborah Weinstein and Sarah Allen, who were the master students working in Bracht’s lab, contributed to the work along with Kathryn Walters-Conte, Ph.D., director of AU’s Master’s in Biotechnology program.

It’s quite amazing that something that was unknown a decade ago is a subject of study in research labs now. Bracht referred the worms to “Aliens landed at AU” when he brought them from South Africa.NASA supports the project for its potential to provide clues about life beyond earth.

The future plans for Bracht’s lab are to study Hsp70’s function by inactivating the gene to see its effect on heat tolerance. The plan also includes gene transfer studies by inserting the gene to C.elegans, a heat intolerant microscopic roundworm.


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