Your heart and a worm’s butt: besties?

You know, when you think about it – I mean, really think about it – there is… really nothing obvious about the connection between a worm’s pooper and your ticker. But things are not always as they seem.

In science, they rarely are. For example, having grown up on the notion that bones are made of calcium, we could be forgiven for thinking that this is where calcium’s usefulness in the body ends. That is not the case, however. Calcium is one of the most ubiquitous signaling chemicals in the body, facilitating everything from flexing your muscles to that squirt of endocrine reward you get for having worked out in the first place.

Calcium also governs the proper beating of your heart. Researchers are not yet aware of the mechanism by which calcium regulates how the heart works, but researchers at the U of R may be a step closer to an answer. And they got there by studying the digestive systems of worms.

Because the worm’s digestive system basically works as a series of muscle contractions pushing the food through the system, they wondered what was causing the muscles to move in such an organized wave. They wondered what made the muscles contract so rhythmically:

The team’s analysis revealed that a molecule called a microRNA is required for the entire waste removal process to run smoothly. microRNA-786 is present in the two most posterior intestinal cells of worms and tags these cells as the pacemakers or leaders. These pacemakers dictate when and where the primary calcium spike occurs, activating the movement of waste through the worm’s body. When the team removed microRNA-786 from worms the process went awry; the calcium wave started in the wrong place and the waste cycle was irregular and longer than normal.

So the presence of a single molecule of microRNA in a worm’s butt is what makes him crap real good. It is what creates a chain of command that allows the muscles to work as a team. And some similar type of “teamwork gene” might be present in human hearts as well. Or at least, studying the relationship between microRNA-786 and the pacemaker cells may reveal other clues to the heart’s regulation.

Or maybe they just create the world’s most efficient laxative. I think that avoiding a “waste cycle” that is “irregular and longer than normal” is a goal we all share. Here’s to science!