November 4, 2010

A ‘touchy’ subject at Discovery Lecture

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Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie, M.D., listens to his introduction at last week’s Discovery Lecture. (Photo by Anne Rayner)

A ‘touchy’ subject at Discovery Lecture

Light Hall was packed for last week’s Discovery Lecture by Martin Chalfie, Ph.D. (Photo by Anne Rayner)

Light Hall was packed for last week’s Discovery Lecture by Martin Chalfie, Ph.D. (Photo by Anne Rayner)

If worms could giggle, Martin Chalfie's lab might sound like “An Evening at the Improv.”

“I'm the world's expert, I believe, in tickling worms,” said Chalfie, Ph.D., at the Oct. 28 lecture.

But worms don't giggle — they wiggle. And that's the response Nobel Laureate Chalfie looks for when he employs his sophisticated, custom-made worm-tickling device (an eyebrow hair glued to a toothpick).

He's not trying to antagonize the worms — the tiny, transparent lab darling C. elegans — but to identify worms that aren't “ticklish.” These worms might hold the clues to how our mechanical senses work.

While much is known about the molecular components that detect and transduce the signals involved in the more glamorous senses (e.g., sight, smell, taste), mechanosensation is one of the last real open areas of sensory biology, he said.

From providing information about where our limbs are in space — or whether we are floating in space, the mechanical senses are critical to how we interact with the world. They're even important in helping get our organs into their proper places during development.

“The whole body plan is dictated by mechanical sensing at one time or another,” explained Chalfie, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University and chair of the department.

“All of these various (mechanical) senses have one thing in common,” he said. “And that is: we do not have a clue as to how they work.”

In his talk, Chalfie — a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine and a recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry — detailed the decades of work teasing out the various genes responsible for the mechanical senses.

By identifying worms that don't respond to gentle touch, his lab has identified genes required for the development of touch-sensing cells and genes required for the cells to function properly.

As the lecture's title, “Touch Sensitivity in C. elegans: An Adventure in Nontranslational Research,” might suggest, Chalfie also strongly emphasized the importance of basic research, noting that 98 percent of the recent NIH Challenge Grants were translational in nature.

“I think that's the wrong proportion,” he said. “As I get older, I really like this idea (of translational research), but what I don't like is thinking that this is all we should be doing.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology.

For a complete schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and archived video of previous lectures, go to