Is This Virtual Worm the First Sign of the Singularity?

"Brenner planned to use the worm to discover how genes made bodies and then behavior," wrote Andrew Brown in a book on C. elegans. "And this was in 1965, before anyone had found and analysed a single gene for anything." It is only today, in 2013, that his disciples' disciples' are beginning to fulfill that original vision.

In a 1974 paper quoted in the talk he gave accepting the Nobel Prize for Medicine, Brenner put it like this, "Behavior is the result of a complex ill-understood set of computations performed by nervous systems and it seems essential to decompose the question into two," he wrote, "one concerned with the question of the genetic specification of nervous systems and the other with the way nervous systems work to produce behaviour." In other words, how do genes build brains and how do brains direct bodies?

Now, finally, OpenWorm may be able to integrate the strains of research that began with Brenner into one simulation that, as it wiggles along in its digital petri dish, might be the first realistic virtual animal, a boon to research, and a Kurzweilian foreshadowing of the challenges humans face when we begin running life on silicon chips.

I asked several researchers whether simulating the worm was possible.  "It's really a difficult thing to say whether it's possible," said Steven Cook, a graduate student at Yale who has worked on C. elegans connectomics. But, he admitted, "I'm optimistic that if we're starting with 302 neurons and 10,000 synapses we'll be able to understand its behavior from a modeling perspective." And, in any case, "If we can't model a worm, I don't know how we can model a human, monkey, or cat brain."

Ellison echoed that thought. "They stand a much better chance of success than the people working on mammalian brains," he said. White, who led the creation of the worm connectome, said OpenWorm "seemed appropriate really" as a way of integrating all the data that biologists were producing. And the Kansas worm scientist Ackley figured that even if OpenWorm didn't work, something like it would. "C. elegans is probably going to be the first or very close to the first [multicellular organism] to be simulated," he said

David Dalrymple, an MIT graduate student who has contributed to OpenWorm and is working on a worm brain modeling project of his own, pointed out what he sees as a limitation to the effort. OpenWorm has incorporated a lot of anatomical data -- the structures of the worm's nervous system and musculature -- described by scientists like White. But these studies were carried out with dead worms. They can't tell scientists about the relative importance of connections between neurons within the worm's neural system, only that a connection exists. Very little data from living animals' cells exist in the published literature, and it may be required to develop a good simulation. 

"I believe that an accurate model requires a great deal of functional data that has not yet been collected, because it requires a kind of experiment that has only become feasible in the last year or two," Dalrymple told me in an email. His own research is to build an automated experimental apparatus that can gather up that functional data, which can then be fed into these models. "We're coming at the problem from different directions," he said. "Hopefully, at some point in the future, we'll meet in the middle and save each other a couple years of extra work to complete the story."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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