In 2011 an international collaboration of scientists started a project named Openworm that is attempting to digitally model and simulate a member of the worm species C. Elegans. In doing so they hope to develop tools that will allow more and more complex creatures to be simulated, possibly even human beings.
Cainorhabditis Elegans is an extremely simple roundworm species that has been studied extensively. They have only 959 cells compared to the approximately 37.2 trillion cells humans have. They are around 1 mm long. They are the model roundworm species: the creature all other roundworms are compared to. because of this, their anatomy is well known; we know the location and function of every one of their cells. Because of their simplicity and the way we’ve mapped their cells, they are the perfect subject for the Openworm project.
Unsurprisingly, simulating a living creature is difficult, even one as simple as C. Elegans. This isn’t helped by the fact that Openworm is the first project of its kind to last for a significant length of time, so many of the tools the project needs simply don’t exist. Openworm has created a program called Geppetto (named after Pinocchio’s father) that can simulate the interactions between nerve and muscle cells, and could be used to simulate different functions in the future (like sensory cells). Geppetto can also simulate the movement of the worm’s body, and how it moves around its environment. The Openworm project has also created NeuroConstruct, a program that builds models of a creature’s brain.
Openworm still has a long way to go to build a complete model of C. Elegans. So far, they have finished simulating its nervous system and musculature, and have managed to make the worm crawl around a flat environment. They still need to model the worm’s other systems, like its digestive track, and give it more complex behaviours, like searching for food and navigating through difficult terrain. They have years to go before the simulation is complete, and C. Elegans is the simplest animal they could have chosen to simulate. Still, if the openworm project continues, and we keep developing more advanced tools, we could eventually be able to create more accurate models of more complex creatures. We could even use these simulations to replace lab animals in tests, though we’re still decades away from even considering that possibility.