Date:1 March 2011
‘The biggest challenge is recognising whether you are on the path to a great discovery or have just spent six months gassing a bunch of worms for nothing.’
Name: Mark Budde
Years on job: 6
Years ago, Mark Budde saw a documentary about a child who survived after being trapped for hours under the ice in a frozen lake. “I thought, how did this kid keep from drowning, and why isn’t anyone studying it?” he says. His curiosity led him to study suspended animation: a state in which observable life processes, including movement, breathing and heartbeat, appear to have stopped. Since 2005, Budde has analysed the genetics behind hydrogen sulphideinduced suspended animation in nematodes. The PhD student endures long hours in the lab because the goal – preserving life – is so profound. “If we can understand what genetic pathways are involved,” he says, “we could apply that knowledge everywhere from the emergency room to the battlefield.”
By Amber Angelle
How it works
C. elegans has many of the same life processes as humans – including digestive, muscle and sexual-reproductive systems – and is easy to manipulate. Budde can create many genetic strains to determine which worms best respond to hydrogen sulphide gas; studies have shown that the gas protects organs from cell die-off caused by a lack of oxygenated blood.
Expose them to gas
After creating mutations in about 100 000 worms, Budde gases them from a tank equipped with a mass flow controller that measures how much hydrogen sulphide gas is flowing. Exposure activates a genetic pathway regulated by the HIF-1 protein. Within 4 hours, worms go into a suspended state as the gas blocks oxygen use in their bodies.
As he exposes the nematodes to the gas, Budde observes them with a dissecting microscope to identify the ones that respond the quickest.
Study survivor genetics
Most worms begin moving again after the gas is shut off. Budde grinds up these survivors and analyses the proteins using a mass spectrometer, searching for clues as to how an animal can go into a suspended state and reanimate without damage. Scientists could use this information to develop therapies that would be administered to patients in emergencies, giving doctors more time to work.