Poop! There It Is


March 20, 1994|By DAVE BARRY

Mutant constipated worms. It's a topic we all think about a lot; but what do we really know about it?

The answer, I am pleased to report, is: More every day, thanks to the efforts of a professor named Jim Thomas in the Genetics Department of the University of Washington in Seattle. Thomas has an entire laboratory devoted to studying irregularity in worms. He is the world's leading authority on this topic.

I learned of Thomas's work through one of his alert graduate students, Creg Darby, who sent me a lengthy scientific paper that Thomas had written. In an accompanying letter, Creg wrote: "Notice that Jim was not merely content to describe how worms poop. Oh no. We geneticists are a twisted lot, because we love mutants, so Jim went and zapped worms with nasty chemicals to make mutant worms that are constipated. Really, it's all there in the paper. I know you can't understand most of it, so I have highlighted the word 'constipated.'"

Creg who is not afraid to use capitalization for desired emphasis added that "Jim's research is funded by the U.S. government! He is spending tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money to make constipated worms!!!!!!!!!"

Let me state that, as a taxpayer, I would much rather see my tax money spent on mutant constipated worms than on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Not that there is such a huge difference.

But as a journalist, I feel a fundamental responsibility to you, the public, to check out stories that involve the use of your tax money for scientific projects in cities that have good microbrewery beer. So I went to Seattle.

Thomas' office is located in the university's Health Sciences Building, which is very scientific. I say this because of the bulletin boards. Back in the '60s, when I was in college, our bulletin boards were covered with announcements of festive social events such as dances, concerts and the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Whereas the first bulletin board I saw in the Health Sciences Building had the following announcement posted on it: "A keratin 14 mutational hot spot for epidermolysis bullosa simplex-dowling-meara."

I wasn't sure that it was medically safe for a layperson to even LOOK at these words, so I scurried on up to Jim Thomas' laboratory. It was cluttered with scientific items such as petri dishes, beakers, test tubes, radioactivity warnings, deadly chemicals and graduate students eating their lunch. I did not immediately see any worms; Prof. Thomas explained that the ones he studies, called Caenorhabditis elegans, are only one millimeter long. (To give yourself an idea how long that is, hold your thumb and forefinger one millimeter apart.)

A lot of scientists study these worms. They (the scientists) even have their own magazine, and they regularly gather at events such as the West Coast Worm Meeting.

Jim Thomas loves his worms.

"We think they are the coolest organisms in the world," he told me, and his corps of graduate students nodded in proud agreement.

What makes these worms especially cool for constipation studies is (1) You can see right through them, and (2) They poop every 45 seconds. I know this because I saw them myself. First Thomas showed me a videotape of one of them in action.

"OK, watch this," he said, as the worm contracted itself. "He's getting ready ... "

The worm made a sudden motion.

"POOP!" said Thomas, thrusting his fist forward in a football-fan-like gesture of triumph.

Next Thomas led me to a microscope, where I saw some live worm action. Basically what these worms do all the time is crawl around in dishes full of food, eating, pooping and having sex. It is guy heaven. All they need is tiny TVs with remote controls.

I also looked at some mutant constipated worms, who were bloated and definitely not as lively. They reminded me of people in laxative commercials.

PHARMACIST WORM: You don't look so good today, Ed. Is it ... irregularity?

CUSTOMER WORM: You said it, Mr. Feemley! I haven't pooped in over 90 seconds!

I asked Jim Thomas if there was any possibility that his research would ever, in a zillion years, have any practical benefits for humans. He couldn't think of any offhand, but he allowed that it might conceivably be possible.

That is good enough for me. I'm glad that we're funding this research. In fact, I would strongly support spending more money in this area, as well as any scientific endeavor that has the potential to benefit mankind. And here I am thinking of the microbreweries.

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