Disappearing networks
May 17th, 2007

To understand our changing times, and make some sense out of our connective future, it is becoming clear that we need to appreciate how networks make things happen. Today I found a report on the Rockefeller University Newswire describing how a network comes along in a worm embryo, establishs functions on the two sides of the creature and then the network disappears. Do the networks we call the Internet, Web and smart mobs do things like this?

Cori Bargmann, Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, head of the Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior. ‘What is it that sets up this kind of handedness in the brain?’

Bargmann and postdoctoral associate Chiou-Fen Chuang — now an assistant professor at Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation — found that the first step of left-right communication is carried out by a gene that makes gap junctions, ‘broadband’ communication channels through which cells pass many kinds of molecules and electrical signals. And yet strangely, as far as worm researchers knew, no gap junctions existed anywhere on adult worm AWC neurons.

Then Bargmann and Chuang had a flash of insight: Since, like handedness, AWC asymmetry arises before the animal is fully developed, maybe they needed to examine the nervous system of the embryonic worm. Using an electron microscope, they discovered that the developing worm’s neural network, which had not previously been mapped, was completely different from that of the mature animal. ‘A large number of embryonic neurons are heavily interconnected by gap junctions,’ says Bargmann, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. ‘They all grow to the midline, communicate with each other and create a conduit of information that links together these two different sides of the brain.’ Then, after the gap junctions do their job, they disappear. ‘This network is transient; we only know about it because we were able to look at this early period.’

A similar system of extensive gap junctions appears in the developing mammalian brain, but researchers have yet to figure out exactly what it does.

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