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Worms are 'caring' according to Porton scientists

Worm research - Porton Down  and Soton Uni - Evidence of worm food-leaving (University of Southampton)

6:16am 2nd October 2017

This has to be one of the loveliest pieces of research involving scientists from the Porton Down labs near Salisbury.

A team of experts has concluded that the simple worm can show elements of 'love' and is actually quite 'caring'.

Modern neuroscience has long been smitten by the idea of identifying how the brain, and its complex array of nerve cells, bring about social behaviour. Now they've identified the worm's 'love hormone' which shows their caring side.


There are several levels of social behaviour but perhaps the most primitive are those that make parents act to ensure the well-being of their offspring. In fact the maternal instinct (sorry Dads) are recognised as among the most potent of behavioural drives.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have been working with the National Infection Service at Porton Down, along with KU Leuven in Belgium. They've recognised that the simple worm - C.elegans (pictured) - which is approximately 1mm in length - may actually harbour an ancient form of parental behaviour designed to benefit their offspring.


Professor Vincent O'Connor, who jointly led the work with Lindy Holden-Dye and Mathew Wand, explained how they reached their conclusions:

"The worms lead a simple life in which they feed off the bacteria that exist in the fermenting environments they live in."

"They perpetuate generations using a life cycle in which adult worms self-fertilize and lay their off spring into the bacteria. This immediately sets up a conundrum, as the parent will be competing for the same food source as their off spring."

"The research shows that before the food source becomes limiting, the parents recognise their offspring and execute a food leaving behaviour to benefit their off spring."

"Importantly, and enabled by the experimental virtues of the worm, the research shows this is dependent on the hormone nematocin, the ancient nematode version of a human hormone called oxytocin. These hormones are known to regulate sociability and have been called the 'love hormone'. So it would appear that behaviours that ensure our parents are keen to see us eat well have morphed from the ancient organisation of simple nervous systems such as those found in worms."


The research paper 'An oxytocin-dependent social interaction between larvae and adult C. elegans' is published in Scientific Reports (DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-09350-7).

Click here to read their paper:

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