Predictive models are essential in engineering fields, but less common in biology, though accurate simulations of living organisms could help us understand disease, drug efficacy and neuroscience.
OpenWorm, a new open-source project devoted to creating a complete virtual model of a worm, aims to bring simulation into the living world by creating a digital organism--C. elegans, a nematode commonly used as a model organism in biology research.
The goal is to make a digital worm that mimics its biological counterpart in essentially every way, from the molecular level to behavioral patterns. The project's creators explain their reasoning like this:
Because we believe brain research must accelerate, we are taking matters into our own hands. If we cannot build a computer model of a worm, the most studied organism in all of biology, we don't stand a chance to understand something as complex as the human brain. We must crawl before we can walk!
They're using a largely bottom-up approach, bringing together data from scientific observations of C. elegans from the past decade to simulate every aspect of the worm within a program, starting with the basics of its cell behavior. While C. elegans has been so widely studied, there's plenty of data out there on its neurons and muscular structure--that data just needs to be integrated to create a full model.
So far, the international team has created a demo of five connected muscle segments moving together through water, and a simulation of working neurons. They've also released an iPhone app that allows users to explore any of the 959 individual cells within a 3-D model of C. elegans.