What I do for a living

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“So my life for the next 3-4 years is going to be looking at earthworms (yes, earthworms) and all the wonders they hold (and hopefully wangling a trip to Portugal)”

Now yes, I know. As an unemployed graduate this doesn’t seem like a compelling title for an engaging blog post, but with the almost imminent commencement of my PhD studies I can write about the kind of stuff I’m going to be upto whilst still being given the measly sum of £1 per hour allocated to me by Jobseekers Allowance (£35 per week / 5 working days / 7 hours a day (9:00-17:00 minus 1 hour unpaid lunch)). This is before the honorary title of dole-scum will be so patronisingly removed from my shoulders by an enthusiastic “Oh, you’ve found a job? Well done you!” like a grandmother commending a strangers child on finding an unusually shaped stick in the park (Trust me, I’ve done this 3 times before. Always the same).

You guys out there will probably know that I’ve got myself a tidy little Genetics degree and intend to crack on with that in a professional capacity. Nothing too flashy, standard 2:1 etc. Landing on my feet I have found myself with a PhD offer in Cardiff where I’m currently residing and after some hair-raising moments over the last few months it’s all set in stone now. You may remember my previous post on here was about the massively flawed supposition that you could use genetics in the seduction of the ladies (if you don’t, then go read it now. It’s a hoot) and so I’m not going to try and hype this up but lay out in all its horrific glory. So here goes:

Bacteria is pretty important. It does all kinds of stuff. You’ve got buckets of them in your gut and you need them there or else you would be on a quick train to a slow death. Ok, death is pretty extreme and Humans can normally get away without dying and just being pretty ill, but a lot of other animals don’t. All the bacteria in your gut works together and creates what’s called a microbiome (pronounced micro-bi-ome, microbes being those small buggers and -ome being the suffix meaning all the microbes involved, but in a genetic capacity).  The gist is that these gut microbes are pretty damn important. Some scientists out there are saying that their genomes should be included in with the standard human ones because they’re essential and without the bacterial sequences human life wouldn’t be what it is. Same with other animals, which is what I’m going to be looking at.

So my life for the next 3-4 years is going to be looking at earthworms (yes, earthworms) and all the wonders they hold (in a microbiomic context). Now what follows is my understanding prior to actually starting studying this. I’ve only a superficial understanding but I can tell you’re excited so I’ll get straight to the good bit, but before we start, Pop Quiz:

What was Charles Darwins fastest selling book?……….

Wrong.  It was “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms” in 1881. That was fun wasn’t it?

Anyway,  Earthworms are pretty damn important. If Darwin said so it must be true. They’re almost ubiquitously found in soil around the world so they must be pretty good at adapting to the environments they find themselves in. They aerate the soil, mix it around and break down leftover organic matter. The bacteria they carry round are nitrogen fixing so they’ve got a role in the nitrogen and carbon cycle too. The common worm has a knack, however for living in some pretty extreme places, old mines being one of the best. The same worm species can live in your garden and also in abandoned mines where there are all kinds of nasty lead, zinc and other heavy metals killing off everyone else. The worms can store up the metals in their tissue without too much damage to themselves but also convert a much higher proportion into other forms more or less available to other plants and animals, which they excrete. They’re basically just cleaning up the place. Now whilst mines are fun and everything, hopefully some of my work will involve comparing normal, down-the-road worms with the worms from this little volcanic island off Portugal with geysers and all. There you find all kinds of metals from inside the earth and CO2 concentrations of upto 20% in the soil. And still the worms are happy as Larry. My job is to find out how that works (and hopefully wangle a trip to Portugal).

How it works is anyone’s guess (the worm part, not me getting a trip to Portugal). The current thinking is that as there isn’t much difference between the actual worms from these different habitats, then it must be the microbiome that is doing the hard work of dealing with the toxins. I hope so anyway, or else this will be a very short non-PhD.

Earthworms have three sets of separate microbial populations: One in the gut, one in the ‘blood-like’ stuff that they have flowing round them and then a nephridial population (nephridia being a kind of a proto-kidney). The first two get built from the bacteria around them in the soil when they’re born and from other worms around them. This is known as horizontal transfer. But the nephridia has its microbiome transferred directly from the parent with no outside influence. This has led to it being referred to as a symbiont, and I can tell that all you evolutionarily acute people out there have guessed the kicker all ready. Being vertically transferred means that there should be some kind of selection pressure on the symbiot over generations and so distinct earthworm populations could have wildly divergent microbial symbionts. This could be (and is what we are expecting to be) a key factor in the earthworm’s adaptation to hostile environments. We’re even going to have a go at wiping out all the bacteria of the normal (control) earthworms and transferring the ‘specialised’ earthworm microbiomes in and seeing if it enables them to survive. Only time will tell.

Doesn’t sound like a lot, but there are quite a few facets to this, and it should take a solid 3+ years to get the whole thing done and dusted. I’m pretty excited about the whole thing and very much enjoy talking the ear off of anyone who shows the remotest interest so be warned.

 

Good. Glad to get that out of the way.