Caenorhabditis elegans is a tiny worm, but it can disclose big truths. Researchers John Calarco and Adam Norris at Harvard University published a paper on how alternative splicing works in C. elegans.
A report on their research in the HarvardGazette compared alternative splicing to the work of a film editor:
“Film editors play a critical role by helping shape raw footage into a narrative. Part of the challenge is that their work can have a profound impact on the finished product — with just a few cuts in the wrong places, comedy can become tragedy, or vice versa.
A similar process, ‘alternative splicing,’ is at work inside the bodies of billions of creatures — including humans. Just as a film editor can change the story with a few cuts, alternative splicing allows cells to stitch genetic information into different formations, enabling a single gene to produce up to thousands of different proteins.”
It is now obvious that tiny living creatures have very complex nervous systems:
“ ‘There are a finite number of genes in the genome, and changing which of those gets turned on or off gives you a certain level of complexity,’ Calarco said. ‘What alternative splicing does is add another layer of complexity, allowing an organism to diversify a cell type even more — we think this contributes a great deal to an organism’s ability to diversify its cellular function and cellular architecture.’ ”
Moreover, it is a huge leap from a worm to a man:
“ ‘We know the human nervous system is very complex,’ said Norris. ‘I think this is one explanation for how that complexity is encoded. We’ve got on the order of billions of neurons, but we’ve only got on the order of thousands of genes. How can you create a complex, billion-neuron network with different capacities for each cell? This gives us one explanation for how an organism can do that.’ ”