Project: Crossing the ultimate tipping point: predicting death in C. elegans

The Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) is financing innovative pioneering ideas for fundamental biological research, which should preferably be interdisciplinary and intercontinental at the same time. No easy task, but Jan Kammenga, researcher at Nematology, considered this a true challenge. For a project proposal about 'ageing in worms' he found a partner in America. The organisation in Strasbourg received no less than 840 applications of which no more than 24 were honoured, including the proposal of Kammenga and Stefano Allesina (University of Chicago).

They never had contact before but via the literature and suggestions by colleague-scientists Jan came across the American scientist Stefano Allesina of the Department of Ecology & Evolution of the University of Chicago. The first tentative contact was made via Skype and both scientists soon found themselves to be on the same wavelength. This fruitful 'collaboration at a distance' led to an outstanding project proposal, an example of the type of research stimulated by HFSP, resulting in a logical honouring.

In the project 'Crossing the ultimate tipping point: predicting death' the team is investigating the tipping point in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which is similar to turning point that is formed when an ecosystem is rapidly and irreversibly reacting to human influences. The researchers hypothesise that the gene-regulating network of worms shows characteristic behaviour upon approaching the ultimate tipping point to death.

The scientists are receiving a subsidy of $ 750,000 from the Human Frontier Science Program for the project, which is going to last four years. Jan Kammenga is of course very enthusiastic about receiving the award: "It would also be nice to meet my American research partner in person during the course of the project."

The tiny nematode worm C.elegans has been instrumental for identifying genes that increase lifespan. Although most of the genes increasing lifespan in C.elegans are also present in humans, only very few have been associated with human longevity. This is mainly due to the fact that humans are more complex than worms. Instead of studying single genes we will investigate a multi-gene approach where we assume that lifespan in the worm can be predicted by the behaviour of all these genes together.