Maternal Instinct and the Simple Worm

Caenorhabditis elegans
Photo by Society of Mucosal Immunology

Whoever thought research on worms could produce heart-warming news on the maternal instinct?

The maternal instinct is known to be a powerful force. Simply put, it is the desire in mothers to perpetuate their offsprings’ survival, sometimes even at a detriment to herself. It is driven by hormones, namely oxytocin, sometimes affectionately called the “love” hormone. Skin-to-skin contact is known to increase amounts of oxytocin in both mothers and children. The rise in oxytocin also has been proven to reduce anxiety.

So what does this have to do with worms? Are worms driven by anything but their own need to survive?

Yes, it turns out. Scientists in England have discovered, in the course of researching the simple worm, C.elegans, that the worms work to help their offspring to survive, even at their own sacrifice.

The worms feed on a bacteria, the same bacteria they lay their offspring in. Thus they are competing for the same food source as their offspring.

The researchers from England’s University of Southampton, working with the National Infection Service at Porton Down and KU Leuven in Belgium, discovered the worms recognize their offspring and develop a “food-leaving” strategy, designed to ensure the offspring get enough to eat.

The scientists made a connection between this behavior and the hormone nematocin, which is an ancient version of oxytocin. So, according to the researchers, our maternal instinct was derived from “the ancient organization of simple nervous systems such as those found in worms.”

Cool, right?

More to come on oxytocin next week…