By Mark Hollmer
C. elegans sounds a bit like “elegant,” but it is actually the scientific name for a specific type of nematode, a tiny worm just one millimeter long.
While the average person may not view worms as elegant, Anne Hart sees C. elegans as marvelous creatures that are an ideal tool to help solve some important medical mysteries.
“They have a very short lifecycle, going from egg to adult worm in three days,” Hart said. “They are very inexpensive, and they are one of the most powerful genetic models available for studying the nervous system.”
Hart is coming to Brown this fall as an associate professor of neuroscience after many years as a scientist with the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Cancer Research and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
She brings with her something new to the Brown community. She will be the first person here with a lab devoted to C. elegans. These animals are barely visible to the naked eye, have only 302 neurons and live in soil around the world.
Hart uses C. elegans to study nervous system function and neurodegeneration. She wants to figure out the basic principles of how neurons work and why neurons die in neurodegenerative diseases. In a broader context, Hart sees C. elegans as an ideal animal in which to study this vast subject, because they are organisms with a relatively simple construction.
“It’s figuring out a lawnmower first before a nuclear submarine,” Hart said. “The C. elegans nervous system is small and simple. Humans are complicated.”
Hart, 48, said she is excited to bring her research to Brown and to join “an excellent group of neurobiologists” already here. She said that collaboration in neuroscience is key to making advances in the field.
“There are great people (at Brown) doing neuroscience in all sorts of other neuro-organisms,” she said. “I have found over the years that you can make the most progress when studying a tough problem like neurodegeneration, if you are working with scientists who have other approaches and are using other models.”
C. elegans will not necessarily take up much space. At any one time, Hart said, there are tens of thousands of the worms alive in the lab, with tens of thousands more in the freezer. The frozen ones come back to life when they’re thawed. The active ones live on agar-filled Petri dishes and eat bacteria.
Hart has pursued research at Massachusetts General Hospital for 15 years — initially as a postdoctoral fellow — and has run her own lab there since 1996. At MGH she most recently has had the title of associate geneticist in medicine and served as associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. Hart earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University in 1983, worked for a few years, and then earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience after seven years at the University of California–Los Angeles.
Hart, who is married and has a teenage daughter, does a lot outside of the lab. She plays “very amateur” ice hockey with her husband and loves to cook. The family also sails on a small boat named the Anodyne.
The boat’s name, of course, has a scientific and neuronal connection. Anodyne is a Greek term for a soothing treatment that decreases or eliminates pain.