OpenWorm Can Unleash Artificial Lifeforms

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For a transparent and microscopic roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans turns out to be far more complicated than pronouncing its name. Now a coding project is offering up everything scientists know about this complex worm in an effort to create artificial lifeforms.

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OpenWorm‘s creators describe the project as an open source effort to make the world’s first virtual organism in a computer, a C.elegans nematode. Their reasoning: How can we accelerate research around the human brain if we can’t even understand a worm brain? They looked to this worm because it’s able to avoid predators, feed, learn and find mates all with a brain that has 302 neurons, as ExtremeTech.com’s John Hewitt pointed out.

So an international team of neuroscientists and software engineers put all the available data about the worm out there, including a comprehensive map of all the neural connections inside the worm’s brain. That data can be manipulated using OpenWorm’s simulation platform, called Geppetto, which is written in Java. All the code is available on GitHub.

Realistically you need to have programming skills to jump into the OpenWorm world and begin playing around, but the project has interest for citizen scientists as well who want to geek out over the prospect of virtual worms living inside their computers — the good kind, not the destructive malware kind.

Beyond being a stepping stone for human brain research, the OpenWorm project could also accelerate cures for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So far, OpenWorm has generated dedicated projects running parallel that include a fluid mechanics simulator as well as descriptions of all the synaptic junctions and ion channels for each cell in the worm’s brain.

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OpenWorm currently has some limitations as far as simulations go, though. One of the project’s team members estimated that it will be months before anyone will be able to download a virtual creature. When that time comes, however, programmers and science buffs alike can be assured that it will be a biologically accurate one.

Image: A network of cells and neurons generated using tech available through the OpenWorm project. Credit: OpenWorm via ExtremeTech.com.

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