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£90,000 research project of tiny garden compost worms for new research on human diseases

The study of the Caernorhabditis elegans worm will aid researchers understanding of the genetics of human disease, whilst reducing the need for animal testing

University of Huddersfield


IMAGE: Dr Tarja Kinnunen will study the benefits of the worm, named Caernorhabditis elegans or C. elegans, which will offer a better understanding of the genetic basis for many human diseases... view more

Credit: University of Huddersfield

THE study of tiny worms that are barely visible to the naked eye could lead to new treatments for ailments such as kidney disease and to the development of drugs designed to slow down the effects of ageing on human health.

Now, a University of Huddersfield scientist has received major funding that will enable her to develop her work in this field and to recruit and train a new researcher.

Also, Dr Tarja Kinnunen is poised to deliver a free public lecture (January 21) that will describe the benefits of studying the worm, named Caernorhabditis elegans or C. elegans. These include a better understanding of the genetic basis for many human diseases.

Another advantage is that by using the worms for fundamental scientific discoveries, the need to carry out research using animals such as rodents and primates can be greatly reduced. This factor has led to Dr Kinnunen being awarded £90,000 doctoral training studentship by the National Centre for the Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3RS).

The money will enable the appointment of a new doctoral student, supervised by Dr Kinnunen, who will use C. elegans in order to understand the important role played by a recently-discovered protein molecule named Klotho on physiology, including the effects of ageing.

Research involving animals

Most research into Klotho involves animals. But Dr Kinnunen and her researchers, via genetics and microscopy, use the worms, which are about a millimetre in length. It was almost 50 years ago that the Cambridge-based geneticist Sydney Brenner pioneered the use of C. elegans as an organism that was ideal for experiments, enabling scientists to link genetic analysis to animal development, following the process under the microscope. Since then, three Nobel prizes have been won by scientists who deployed C. elegans in their research.

The worm can be found universally in garden compost, although Dr Kinnunen - who uses them by the million - obtains special stocks of the tiny creatures from a Caenorhabditis Genetics Centre based in an American university.

She explained that the existence of the Klotho gene was first discovered about a decade ago in mice and subsequently in humans. Then she found that the gene was also present in C.elegans and she began to use the worms in Klotho research. The potential benefits of her work are many, because it has become apparent that Klotho is involved in many aspects of human physiology, including soft-tissue calcification, which in case of arteries can cause atherosclerosis and stroke.

"Also, kidney disease causes defects in calcium and phosphate metabolism, so we could try to find help for people with impaired kidney function," added Dr Kinnunen. "These are often ageing-related disorders and Klotho seems to be involved in ageing, so we can learn how to keep human tissues healthy."


Dr Kinnunen, who obtained her doctorate at the Institute of Biotechnology and University of Helsinki, before relocating to the UK as a researcher based in Birmingham and Liverpool, was appointed a Senior Lecturer at the University of Huddersfield in 2012. Her public lecture, taking place on Wednesday, 21 January (6.30pm), is entitled Lessons from the Garden Compost: How tiny worms can inform about human diseases. It takes place at the University's Canalside West Lecture Theatre and is free and open to all, with refreshments available from 6pm. To reserve a place, go to, call Janet Goodridge on 01484 473138 or email

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