Art Edison studies the world's most-studied worm. C. elegans, a type of worm called a nematode, is such a well-mapped little creature that scientists know the number of cells in its body: 959 in a mature animal. Nematodes are everywhere – in the dirt, in saltwater, in Arctic ice, in plants, animals, and the bodies of one out of every four people on earth. Four out of five living creatures on the planet are nematodes. To the layperson, they're simple, generic, wormlike animals we don't think about much. To a biologist, they're fascinating, astonishingly diverse, and, as Edison puts it, "the most successful animal on earth."
Edison's group is interested in the chemicals c. elegans use to communicate with one another and with their environment, specifically in the context of development and reproduction. Research magnets help his team understand precisely the chemical compounds that c. elegans produce and respond to.
Q: You're examining a very well studied animal model. What's beneficial about going down what's in some ways a well-traveled research road?
If you want to learn about something new – and my group studies chemical communication – it's really helpful to start from a known quantity. In c. elegans, the fate of every single cell has been mapped out from fertilization to the adult animal. Next to maybe the double helix, that mapping is one of the significant achievements in biology in the last century. Through that, not only did we learn more about the development of a relatively complex multicellular animal, but also fundamental, widely applicable things like programmed cell death (apoptosis) in that study. Eventually scientists realized that cell death was an important part of development, and that when that goes wrong, it's important in cancer.
C. elegans are some remarkably adaptable animals; they can sense and respond to their environment with an astonishing level of sophistication. If there's abundant food available, they develop in about three and a half days; they go through their larval stages, they become adults and they reproduce. They live for another week. In the absence of food, in harsh conditions, or when they become too populous, they can sense the population and the amount of food. They can then choose an alternate pathway where they can live for months, and survive with no food at all. Both their behavior and their anatomy change accordingly. As soon as they're put in the presence of bacteria, they go on developing and become reproducing adults. It's really neat. It's been known for about 25 years that a chemical caused that, but it was only more recently identified in detail. That chemical, and another that controls mating behavior, have been really interesting places to explore.
For me, I like to stay just at the side of an exciting field, and play with the things nobody's picking out yet and see how they work. Folks in my field are starting to look much more at interactions with bacteria and pathogens. There's just this incredibly complex world of below-the-ground worms interacting with bacteria and fungi, and some of the bacteria are trying to kill the worms, and worms are trying to eat other bacteria and they're all interacting with plants and plant roots and larval insects. It's incredibly complicated stuff.
Q: How does one become a biochemist doing "incredibly complicated stuff?"
Honestly, I didn't think that I liked science, and growing up I had only the vaguest idea as to what a lab environment could be. What I liked in high school was ice hockey – and girls. I wasn't a good student, and I had no motivation to do anything too interesting academically. Afterward, I took a year off and I did a lot of fun things. I was a river-runner, I rode my bike across the country, and I did a bunch of odd jobs. Then I went to a school called St. John's College (in Santa Fe, New Mexico) where you just start by reading Euclid and Plato and Aristotle and reading ancient Greek. I liked it, but nothing was really grabbing me yet. I didn't know what I was doing there, so I decided to take another year off.
During that year, I became a shoe repairman, because I used to repair my ice hockey pads – I had been a goalie – and I loved repairing leather. I loved repairing shoes, and I could have stayed doing it except I guess I just realized I should go back to school. My girlfriend, who became my wife – we moved down to New Mexico so that I could go back to St. John's for another year, but I got especially distracted because I went to work in this boot-making shop, and I made some boots, and then I discovered that there was a saddlemaker who took apprentices. And I thought: Why am I even thinking about school when there's this guy who could teach me about saddles? I quit school again and we built a cabin in the woods with no water or electricity. And then I learned how to make saddles, and I actually got a job working at a saddle shop for three or four years. Then I ended up being a ranch manager, and we had a house with water and electricity – so my job was to take care of things, but then the main part was to fence 200 acres. I built some fencing, and it was one of the hardest jobs I've ever done. I dragged railroad ties with my horse, and it was really a pretty big job in some rocky and steep country. During this whole time I was a volunteer firefighter, partly just to have the radio. Once I started doing it, I really liked the emergency medicine aspect of it though, and I became an EMT, which I thought was really fun. Then our first daughter was born, and I think for the first time I really asked myself if I wanted to be working on a ranch for the rest of my life.
I quit the job at the ranch and became an art major at the university of Utah, with the idea of also taking a bunch of science classes and then going to med school. We'd grown up in Salt Lake City and we wanted to be close to family. I chose art because of saddlemaking and frankly, I didn't think I could deal with science. I took all the science classes I'd need for the medical part and kind of packed them together while I was taking drawing and painting. I found two professors at the University of Utah, chemistry professors, whom I just fell in love with: Dave Grant, who turns out to be one of the great NMR scientists in the world and Bill Epstein, who did natural products chemical communication in plants. I traveled to Southern Utah with Epstein to collect chemicals, and then we analyzed them with Grant and I realized: This is so much fun. I just hadn't realized that that kind of job was out there, and you could do this. I went through sort of a difficult six months figuring out what I wanted to do. I was taking chemistry, and I was drawing (gestures to a drawing of graphene's structure on the wall) and that turned out to be kind of the transitional piece where I realized that I was thinking about science even as I was thinking about art. So I realized I wanted to go into science and do some artistic things on the side, and I got very straight and narrow, finished up, went to grad school, got a postdoc and got a job. It's been a really fun job, too.
This story was originally published in Issue 8 of flux magazine, a discontinued publication of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.