Honors Profile: Hatim Mustaly studies regenerative properties in peanut worm neurons

Senior Honors candidate hopes research will lead to discovery of elements in humans

September 27, 2012

Part of a series on Student Research

If terms like “sipuncula,” “intertidal zones,” “ventral nerve cord” or “fluorescence microscopy” leave you scratching your head but strangely intrigued, you probably want to talk to senior Hatim Mustaly about his Honors Project.

Senior Hatim Mustaly discusses his Honors project in neuroscience. (Ben Sisaikeo/ TKS)

Every year, between 15 to 25 students — mostly seniors — complete a yearlong study on any topic within their field of specialization.

As a neuroscience major, Mustaly chose to study the regenerative properties of neurons in sipuncula worms, otherwise known as “peanut worms.” Sipuncula worms reside in intertidal zones, a scientific term for regions where water frequently comes in and out — i.e. the seashore.

Because of the external stress created by constantly moving water, Mustaly said, “A part of their body tends to get amputated naturally or damaged.”

As an adaptive mechanism, sipuncula worms have developed the ability to regenerate parts of their body, specifically their ventral nerve cord, which runs through the center of their bodies.

Although previous studies have been conducted on sipuncula worms, the exact process by which their nerves regenerate is still unclear. Through a technique called fluorescence microscopy, Mustaly hopes to shed more light on the phenomenon. By using fluorescent dyes, Mustaly can keep track of how the worms’ ventral nerve cord regenerates after being amputated through a microscope. “The biggest hope,” Mustaly said, “would be to find a pattern about how the dye travels after a period of time.”

The medical implications of establishing and mapping out the process of neuron regeneration in sipuncula worms are immense.

“The ultimate goal, maybe not for us,” Mustaly said, “but for those who are studying sipuncula worms in general would be to find a way to regenerate human neurons … to cure neurodegenerative diseases.”

Though excited to get to work, Mustaly faces formidable challenges unique to working with sipuncula worms. Sipuncula worms are relatively small in size but their body walls are thick and muscular, which makes it difficult to access and locate their ventral nerve cords after making an incision. Moreover, the fluorescent dyes he needs to observe how the nerve cord grows are expensive, making it necessary to apply for a Richter Grant.

Mustaly first learned of sipuncula worms from previous research done by another Knox graduate, Professor of Biology Linda Dybas ’64, who happens to chair Mustaly’s Honors committee. Mustaly sees his Honors project as part “of a larger process of regeneration in humans.”’

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