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Epigenetic learning appears confirmed in nematodes; Weismann barrier broken

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Adult Caenorhabditis elegans.jpg
Caenorhabditis elegans (nematode)/Zeynep F. Altun(CC BY-SA 2.5)

Two research groups have demonstrated epigenetic learning in worms:

Some bacteria are lethal to the animals when ingested, and unfortunately, the worms can’t always distinguish them from the nutritious kind until it’s too late.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop them from teaching their young not to make the same mistake, researchers recently realized when watching the nematodes in the lab. Before the animals die from the pathogen, they often lay eggs. These offspring, researchers at Princeton University observed, consistently avoid that particular bacterial species. Evidently, pathogen avoidance—a behavioral habit the mothers learned towards the end of their lifetime—can be transmitted to the next generation, aiding their survival. But it’s not a hard-wired trait; instead, an epigenetic mechanism involving small RNAs appears to be responsible.

Katarina Zimmer, “Worm Parents Pass on Behaviors Epigenetically to Offspring” at The Scientist

Does anyone remember the Weismann barrier, a classic in Darwinism?

For him, the results offer evidence against a long-held theory postulated by August Weismann in the 19the century that changes to somatic cells within an individual’s lifetime, such as neuronal responses, cannot be inherited. “The nervous system can transmit responses across generations and breach the Weismann barrier,” Rechavi says.

Katarina Zimmer, “Worm Parents Pass on Behaviors Epigenetically to Offspring” at The Scientist

If this trait turns out to be widespread, it may help explain some puzzling aspects of animal behavior: specifically, how animals that are definitely not able to learn much individually appear to know things.

See also: Epigenetic change: Lamarck, wake up, you’re wanted in the conference room!

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And then we had: Study: decapitated flatworms retain memories, transfer to new brains The head regenerated and the new brain seems to have the memories of the old. ET
I remember our zoology prof telling us about an experiment where a flat worm is put in a T shaped vessel where food is always placed in the same arm of the T. The worm eventually learns which direction to turn. This flatworm was then fed to other flat worms. Each of these worms was subsequently placed in the same T shaped vessel and they all turned the same way that the first worm learned. I think that this study was later fond to be flawed but I always thought it was a great experimental design. Brother Brian

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