Welcome to the Hotel Nematoda

Science Friday visited the Fang-Yen Lab to take a closer at its “WorMotel.”

Earlier this year, Christopher Fang-Yen, Wilf Family Term Assistant Professor in Bioengineering in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Matthew Churgin, a postdoctoral fellow in his lab, debuted the “WorMotel,” a new way of studying thousands of nematodes at once.

Christopher Fang-Yen and Matthew Churgin

These model organisms are a cornerstone of genetic research, thanks to their short lifespans and simple physiologies. But to study the connection between a given gene and the health and behavior of a given worm, you still have to put it under the microscope.

Fang-Yen and Churgin’s idea involves molded plates that can house 240 worms, each in its own “room” along with all the food it will ever need, as well as a robotic carousel that can move these plates in and out of analysis chambers.

Recently, Science Friday’s Luke Groskin visited the Fang-Yen Lab for a tour of the WorMotel.

The guests at the WorMotel check in with a plop. Each guest has a private room, cozy and controlled temperatures, and enough food to last a lifetime. There’s just one catch: They can never leave.
The WorMotel, a silicone plate with an array of 240 wells that host the roundworm C. elegans, is the creation of researchers at University of Pennsylvania’s Fang-Yen Laboratory. They create the silicone rubber “motels” from a mold, add a splash of bacteria to each “room,” then a machine automatically drops in the guest of honor — a single nematode. Multiple motels are stacked in a carousel, allowing researchers to study thousands of the worms at a time.
“It’s not really been possible to monitor changes in behavior for so many animals automatically,” says Matthew Churgin, a post-doctoral associate at the University of Pennsylvania bioengineering department. “I don’t think it’s possible without the WorMotel.”

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