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Mutant Worm Doesn't Get Drunk, Could Lead To Alcohol-Proof Humans

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DRUNK WORM
Bob Goldstein, UNC Chapel Hill / Wikimedia Commons

This is the kind of worm you want to have your back at the bar.

If only scientists could teach it how to drive.

In a new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers proclaim the dawn of a mutant worm that can't get drunk.

And it bodes brightly for humanity's long and troubled relationship with alcohol.

Researchers, from the University of Texas, suggest the genetically engineered worms could ultimately lead to anti-drunk pills for humans, or more effective treatments for people going through alcohol withdrawal.

The creatures in question — Caenorhabditis elegans worms — are technically model drunks.

When immersed in a booze-soaked dish, they typically move erratically, squirming more slowly and laying fewer eggs, researchers say.

The engineered worms, on the other hand, had a molecular channel that binds alcohol to the brain altered.

"This is the first example of altering a human alcohol target to prevent intoxication in an animal," noted study co-author, Jon Pierce-Shimomura of the in a press release.

The alteration, scientists say, is a subtle one. Essentially, the mutation only affects the worm's response to alcohol on what's called the BK channel. Other essential functions, such as neuron and blood vessel activity, as well as the respiratory tract and bladder, are not disrupted.

"We got pretty lucky and found a way to make the channel insensitive to alcohol without affecting its normal function," explained Pierce-Shimomura.

Pinpointing this target wasn't easy.

"We tried a brute force approach, testing hundreds of mutations to empirically determine which one would allow the BK channel to function normally [while still] preventing alcohol from activating it," he told The Verge. "Eventually, they stumbled upon a genetic modification of the channel that stopped it from activating in the presence of ethanol."

Not to be confused, he added, with the so-called 'Asian flush' — in which some people have trouble processing alcohol.

"Asian flush is due to slow metabolism of alcohol which produces a by-product called acetyladehyde," Pierce-Shimomura told The Verge. "This is a poison, so people with Asian flush are being poisoned when they drink alcohol."

The team's next step will be to try and replicate their efforts on mice, with humans being the ultimate prize.

But first, a sobering message from Motherboard's Michael Byrne:

"An on/off switch doesn't change the nature of addiction from a self-reinforcing, all-encompassing monster to a wound in need of stitches. The ability to turn off withdrawal symptoms would be a marvelous addition to the intervention of drug treatment. But a cure? It's not so easy."

Follow Christian Cotroneo on Twitter

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