Worms, Worm, Worms
A story of vermiform animals

Tom Hardy is one of the greatest actors ever for his unparalleled ability to fill a whole story line and the multitude of human expressions and feelings with just three types of grunted variations of "(h)mmm".
Why is this the worm lab?

There are very many groups of animals that have a worm like body shape (are vermiform). These animal groups are in many cases only distantly related, in other words, the worm body evolved several times in the animal tree of life.

It was the year of 2007 and I was about to finish my Diplom in Biology at the University of Cologne. This included passing oral exams, before doing a 1 year project to be written up into a thesis (called Diplomarbeit in German). For reasons I cannot remember I was standing in the office of Hans-Georg Herbig a Professor in palaeontology (my non-biological minor) in Cologne and he showed me some goose barnacles he had brought back from his holidays in Ireland. Goose barnacles are curious little crustaceans, which do not look at all like your ordinary crab or lobster. Instead they have a long fleshy foot to attach to all kinds of things and spend their life drifting around in the ocean. They are kind of famous in evolutionary biology, since Darwin himself wrote 4 big monographs on barnacles, before embarking on the writing of the Origin of Species.
Hans-Georg asked if I was interested...

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to work on the shell structures of these critters for my Diplomarbeit. I happily agreed with the one condition to do also some molecular phylogenetics on these animals. That is, I wanted to couple traditional microscopic analysis with - at the time - very modern genetics analysis to determine how goose barnacle species are related to each other. So I did this (read more about the goose barnacle story later...).
Next then I wanted to get a PhD - more or less because that is what you do, right. As my Diplomarbeit was in my non-biological minor I had a second supervisor in the biology department. This was Einhard Schierenberg, who studied roundworms (or nematodes). I asked Einhard about the possibility of doing a PhD in his lab and he - to my luck - agreed. At this point I didn't even necessarily want to study nematodes, but had - after some consideration - decided to write a proposal to study the evolution of sex. In part this choice of topic was influenced by the nematodes available in Einhard's lab. He had previously published on parthenogenetic (that is asexual) roundworms and kept an array of such species in his collection. Also nematodes are quite easy to handle, it is basically possible to have millions of them on small agar plates in a box somewhere in the laboratory. Most species also reproduce fairly quickly, and while there are some nasty parasites, the ones that were interesting to me, are completely harmless. Thus my first connection to roundworms came to pass.
While at the beginning of my PhD I still saw the nematodes as a useful model to address my evolutionary questions, I soon learnt more and more about their fascinating diversity. Especially after starting to collaborate with Mark Blaxter from Edinburgh, whom I met by chance during a lab stay with Paul de Ley at UC Riverside, I became properly hooked to nematodes. I reckon there is hardly a thing about nematodes, that Mark doesn't know and speaking with him again and again over the next few years only fostered my fascination with these animals. Something else made me very curious, although there might be well over a ten million species, most knowledge about genetics and development come from the study of just one species, the model C. elegans. At the same time work done by Einhard had shown that there is a lot of variation already very early on the life of nematodes, when they are still a tiny ball of cells in an egg. This lack of knowledge fascinated me and I got deeper and deeper into studying all kinds of things in nematodes and their evolution.

But why is this the worm lab, if I only worked on roundworms?

Strangely enough after my PhD and a short adventure with zebrafish I got involved with even more different worms. Joining the group of Max Telford at UCL I was assigned to a project to study the enigmatic Xenoturbella bocki and some of the closely related acoel flatworms. This group of animals is super interesting for their position on the tree of life - and thus well worth an extended blog post itself. For now all that seems important to say is that through my work with Max I was exposed to even more worms, and even more of them considering our work on the tiny parasitic Orthonectida (these critters only have 200 cells). We actually showed that the orthonectids belong to the annelids, a group of worms containing your common earthworm.
Thus by chance really, most of my research has focussed one kind of worms or the other and thus I got fascinated by nematode biology, where the is so much to learn and explore.
In more general term, I feel this his how science has to be, not linear but a branching mix of things, one leading to the other just by chance. Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher have written a wonderful article about what François Jacob called Night Science, a great read I think....

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