Yanik’s chip should also speed up whole-genome screens that help researchers understand which genes are necessary for vital processes, such as the ability of nerve cells to recover from injury. “A lot of the genes in worms … function in the same way as they do in higher organisms,” says Richard Roy, associate professor of biology at McGill University. Specifically, Yanik’s chip could help speed up experiments in which researchers silence every single worm gene and watch what happens to determine which genes are necessary for which physiological processes.
Yanik is using the chips to study the genetics of nerve regeneration. He developed a highly precise, intense laser for performing microsurgeries on the worms. The laser allows him to very precisely sever a single branch of a neuron without damaging the surrounding tissue. Yanik silences each gene in the worm’s entire genome, one gene at a time, then severs neurons in each worm and watches the outcome. If a worm with a particular silenced gene can’t heal the damaged nerve, that suggests that the gene plays an important role in the healing process.
Speeding up studies of the worms could have broad implications for genomic medicine. The worms provide a particularly good model of the human nervous system, and they’re also widely used to study development, with implications for human developmental disorders and cancer, Roy says. Yanik’s chips, if they live up to their promise, would be a huge improvement in speed, volume, and precision over what’s currently available.