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Airdate: Oct 16, 1998
Scientist: Dick Despommier

NEMATODES - Human Like

NEMATODES - Human Like
Though they may not look like close relatives, nematodes share many of our human biological functions

Trying to map the human genetic code is a little like sorting out the grains of sand on a beach -- so scientists have turned to a simpler, but remarkably similar creature, genetically speaking: the nematode. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.

Nematodes are a a family of worms which range in size from the microscopic to roughly the size of a pencil. And although you may never have heard of them before, there are more nematodes on Earth than almost any other living creature. But what interests scientists is the nematodes' remarkable genetic similarity to humans.

"The reason why they're so interesting to study is that they have a nervous system. They have a complete gut tract. They have a reproductive system. They have a excretory system."

Dickson Despommier is a Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at Columbia University Medical School.

"If you were describing a nematode to a Martian and you didn't tell them what size it was and what shape it was and you said 'it has a nervous system. It has an outer coating that's impervious to water. It thinks, it behaves, it responds to light, it responds to chemical signals. It responds to heat; it responds to touch.' If you did that and you didn't tell them what organism you were discussing, you could have substituted the word human for nematode and still have been correct."

"There are many genes that this organism has which we also have. So once we find out what those genes are, we'll be that much further ahead for the human genome project."

The human genome project is a worldwide effort to map the entire genetic makeup of human beings.

"I think we are going to become aware of the connectedness of our life forms on this planet, be we nematode, human, bacteria, or soybean, we're all going to have something in common."

Pulse of the Planet is presented by the American Museum of Natural History. Additional funding for this series has been provided by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.