A team of Rice University researchers is examining the neural activity and muscle movement of the freshwater Hydra vulgaris. The team’s unique methods are being used to create the first comprehensive characterization of the connection between muscle movements and neural activity in the hydras.
“C. elegans (roundworms) and hydrae have similarities,” said computer engineer Jacob Robinson. “They’re small and transparent and have relatively few neurons, and that makes it easier to observe the activity of every brain cell at the same time.”
“But there are enormous biological differences,” he added. “The worm has exactly 302 neurons, and we know exactly how it’s wired. Hydrae can grow and shrink. They can be cut into pieces and form new animals, so the number of neurons inside can change by factors of 10.”
“If you look at them with the naked eye, they just sit there,” he added. “They’re kind of boring. But if you speed things up with time-lapse imaging, they’re performing all kinds of interesting behaviors. They’re sampling their environment; they’re moving back and forth.”
Robinson and his team believes that the examination of organisms from different locations on the phylogenetic tree can reveal the links between animal nervous systems.
“Why do we have a nervous system? What is it good for? What are the things that a hydra can do that worms and humans can also do? What are the things they can’t do?”
“These kinds of questions will help us understand how we’ve evolved the nervous system we have,” Robinson said.
The findings were published in Lab on a Chip.