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Planet Earth

Star Trek-Style "Phaser" Paralyzes Worms With a UV Blast

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanNovember 21, 2009 12:09 AM
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Feel like teaching a lesson to that pinhead-sized worm that's been bothering you? According to a study in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, a material called dithienylethene plus a blast of UV light can stop a worm in the midst of its worming, rendering it temporarily paralyzed.

The researchers fed a light-sensitive material — a "photoswitch" known as dithienylethene — to the transparent worms. When exposed to ultraviolet rays, the molecule turned blue and the worms became paralyzed. Using visible light instead made the chemical turn colorless and the paralysis ended [LiveScience]

. Scientists aren't sure why the transparent nematodes became paralyzed, but they know dithienylethene changes shapes and suspect it interferes with the worm's energy-producing metabolic pathways. Repeated cycles of UV-induced paralysis actually killed some of the worms. Unsurprisingly, news of this worm stun-gun led to longing for Star Trek-style phasers, and the scientists, though skeptical, were good sports about it. As lead researcher Neil Branda said tactfully:

"I'm not convinced there's a legitimate use of turning organisms on and off in terms of paralysis, but until somebody tells me otherwise, I'm not going to say that there isn't an application" [BBC News]

. But while phasers remain a fantasy, light-activated materials certainly have a future in medical research.

Light-activated drugs could be used to activate tumour-killing drugs once they reach a particular location in the body. Similar chemicals have been used before, but have required a steady supply of light – often harmful UV bandwidths – to stay active. The new compounds, known as diarylethenes, could be more useful because they can be switched on and off with a single light pulse, Branda says [New Scientist]

. Related Content: 80beats: Lasers Write False, Fearful Memories into the Brains of Flies 80beats: Worm Has a Spider-Sense Gene That Keeps it Out of Trouble 80beats: In Worms, a New Theory on Aging Discoblog: New "Worm Charming" Champion Sets World Record

Image: Wiki Commons / Yonatanh

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