Nematode training involves 3 methods: “head touch,” “body touch,” and “tapping” (petri dish vibration), all of which evoke a backward withdrawal reflex. These methods are normally used with Caenorhabditis elegans to isolate neurons responsible for associative learning in the nematode.  They are often studied by tapping the dish, watching C. elegans move backwards when sensing the vibration, then ablating neurons and trying again,  watching for an altered response.

As is often the case, good science doesn’t pay for itself and great discoveries need to be funded.

Fig 1.
Unfortunately, this need is expressed in an unfortunate trend exemplified by Dr. B. Floren’s Minor Circus, in which “head touch” and “tapping” stimuli are applied to C. elegans on a cold agar film and, through a combination of mild heating elements and physical stimuli, entertaining nematode formations result to the cheers of paying observers. A popular favorite is The Danceline (Fig 1).

A detail seldom celebrated in these backroom cabals is the fact that AVA interneurons must be killed

Fig 2.
with a laser microbeam to control habituation patterns and guarantee the right “reversal response.”  While this preparatory procedure is not performed before the trick-hungry audience, it is required for non-parallel tricks like Paired Coil (Fig 2).

An uncomfortable, if impressive, level of training has been achieved by the extreme training methods of Dr. N. Schomaker in his Miracle Microcosm show, in which aggressive “body touch”

Fig 3.
stimulus is combined with chemical gradients on a microvalve-based microfluidic device to induce coordinated movement and complex multi-worm shape organization. This can be seen in formations like The Tower (Fig 3).

Using a short-lived breed of Mermis apexia and adding the more controversial release of neurotoxins and nutrient gradients, he has achieved (by second-hand accounts) a formation called The Nematode Ball (Fig 4).

Fig 4.

This achievement must be appreciated for its difficulty and beauty as much as for its ethical questionability.  Can a valid argument be made that these animals are allowed to "express normal behaviours", or that they are granted "sufficient space, proper facilities, shelter, a comfortable rest area, and company of the animal's own kind," as set out by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council?  Even the "Utilitarian Approach" might allow discomfort or suffering if the trade-off is considered worthwhile, but for entertainment?  Critics argue that but for the decentralized nervous systems, these highly technical animal shows amount ethically to little more than tiny cockfights.

My colleagues show expertise with their subjects, but the potential toxicity and irreversible damage are not justified by the scientific value of the exercise (a formula better balanced by the author’s own nutrient-gradient-driven M. apexia Drag Races).

Will YOU reject unethical behavior performed in the name of easy science funding?

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The Mermithid Truth