You’ve probably experienced the feeling of being hungry as a horse, or have eaten like a pig. But you should really be worried about getting as hangry as a worm, because scientists recently discovered that worms get irrational and reckless when hungry, and that the biological reasons for worm hanger apply to humans as well.
So it’s not some personality quirk or character flaw that turns you into an asshole when you wait too long to pick a restaurant to order dinner from. According to the new study, hanger might be deeply ingrained on a molecular level. “Animals, whether it’s a humble worm or a complex human, all make choices to feed themselves to survive. The sub-cellular movement of molecules could be driving these decisions and is maybe fundamental to all animal species,” Sreekanth Chalasani, senior author of the study and an associate professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, said in a press release.
Chalasani and his team used a small worm called the Caenorhabditis elegans to get more information about how hunger might lead to behavioral changes. Generally speaking, worms are often used as models in genetic studies because they’re transparent, have similar cells and tissues as humans and grow from an embryo into an adult worm in just a few days. Using copper sulfate, a known worm-repellent, researchers created a barrier between worms and their food. The results, published today in the journal PLOS Genetics, revealed that when worms were deprived of food for two to three hours, they were more willing to cross this toxic barrier, compared to the worms that were fed.
From there, using imaging techniques and other tools, Chalasani and his colleagues discovered that there are molecules in the gut that could be sending signals to the brain telling you that it’s totally chill to start eating your groceries in the checkout line. Or rather, while studying the worms, they found specific proteins that turn genes known as “transcription factors” on and off, which changed locations when worms were hungry.
To put it in perspective, these proteins normally stay in the cell’s cytoplasm, but move into the nucleus if they’re activated. Researchers compared this to how people go from their living room to their home office to get work done. When worms were starving, Chalasani and his team found that the proteins MML-1 and HLH-30 returned to the cytoplasm rather than staying in the nucleus. To confirm this as the root of their irrational, hangry behavior, they used genetic tools to delete these proteins entirely. Afterwards, the hungry worms stopped crossing the toxic copper barrier to find food, indicating that these transcription factors are what drives hanger in worms.
“C. elegans are more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” co-first author Molly Matty, a postdoctoral fellow in Chalasani’s lab, added. “Their intestines sense a lack of food and report this to the brain. We believe these transcription factor movements are what guide the animal into making a risk-reward decision, like traversing an unpleasant barrier to get to food.”
While researchers haven’t figured out a way to delete the tiny proteins that make you lose your shit when a restaurant is late with your order, at least you know it’s not just you. And unlike worms, you can always pack snacks just in case.