60-Second Science

Gene Lowers Infection Chance by Changing Behavior

A study in the journal Science finds that roundworms with a particular gene have lower rates of infection--not because they have stronger immunity, but because they prefer to live in environments with fewer microbes. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

A new study with worms shows that some have a gene that helps them stave off infections. Not through some kind of biochemistry—but by changing their behavior.

Scientists were studying two strains of the roundworm C. elegans, one strain that is commonly used in the laboratory, another that was isolated in Hawaii. The laboratory strain got fewer infections than the Hawaiian strain. That’s because the lab worms have a particular version of a gene called NPR-1. But the way the gene works is a bit of a surprise. You might think that a gene involved in fighting infections must somehow enhance an animal’s immune response.

But you would be wrong. Because a current study, published in the January 16th issue of Science, shows that’s not the case. Instead, the scientists showed that the NPR gene found in healthier worms made them picky about their location. They stayed clear of places where oxygen is scarce. As it happens, those are the neighborhoods where bacteria hang out, including the bugs that can cause disease. So the gene made the worms prefer germ-free locales.

So, take a tip from a worm. If you want to avoid what’s out there this winter, just don’t go out there.

—Karen Hopkin

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