UT Researchers Engineer Mutant Worms That Can’t Get Drunk


Being a scientist at UT is a pretty good gig. There’s a giant petawatt laser that you could use, it’s a fast track to becoming an astronaut, and, most recently, you might get to engineer mutant worms that can’t get drunk. Wait, what?

It sounds like something out of “Tales of Weird Science,” but it’s true: According to a recent report in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers in the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research have successfully mutated a channel in the worm’s brain responsible for alcohol intoxication, preventing the worms from becoming drunk. This finding is a potential breakthrough in treating symptoms of alcoholism and alcohol withdrawal.

Researchers achieved this by placing a modified human alcohol target—any molecule in the human brain that binds with alcohol, of which there are many—in the worm’s brain.

“This was the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal,” says Jon Pierce-Shimomura, corresponding author of the study and assistant professor in the College of Natural Science and the Waggoner Center. “We got pretty lucky and found a way to make the channel insensitive to alcohol without affecting its normal function.”

Pierce-Shimomura, who was featured by the Alcalde in 2011 for his research on Down’s Syndrome, explains that the channel in question, a neuronal called the BK channel, is not only responsible for alcohol intoxication but for other essential functions as well, like respiratory function and bladder control. “We couldn’t just block the channel because that would result in seizures, so we started mutating the heck out of it,” he says, crediting lead researcher and graduate student Scott Davis with the channel’s discovery. “Other alcohol targets have been found at UT, but this was the first time we put a modified human target into a worm’s brain.”

The next step, Pierce-Shimomura says, is to try putting the modified target into a mouse brain. The worms—Caenorhabdis elegans, to be exact—display the effects of intoxication well but can’t be used to measure the other areas of alcohol addiction, like tolerance and withdrawal. Davis and Pierce-Shimomura’s team hope that by using mice they are better able to study how symptoms like tolerance and cravings relate to humans.

There is hope that the discovery can lead to better treatment for those suffering from the effects of alcoholism. “Our findings provide exciting evidence that future pharmaceuticals might aim at this portion of the alcohol target to prevent problems in alcohol abuse disorders,” Pierce-Shimomura says. “However, it remains to be seen which aspects of these disorders would benefit.” Unlike drugs such as cocaine, which target a specific area of the human nervous system, alcohol affects different areas of the brain in many different and complex ways, making current treatment efforts troublesome.

This finding is a small but essential step forward, and may even be used to design a sort of “James Bond” drug that counteracts the intoxicating and potentially addicting effects of alcohol; it could sober you up in an instant or even prevent you from getting drunk in the first place. That means we won’t have to live in a world where a mutant worm can drink you under the table.

Image Courtesy Jon Pierce-Shimomura


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