Alcohol Tests on Earthworms May Determine Genetic Link to Alcoholism

By Paul Gaita 05/12/15

The reaction of worms to alcohol appears to indicate that genetics made some more tolerant than others.

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The key to understanding alcoholism? Shutterstock

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond may have found another connection between genetic makeup and alcoholism through the unlikeliest of sources—worms.

Previous studies have drawn a correlation between alcohol and genetics, primarily in familial cases where one or more family members have the disease. Biological data has also shown that individuals with alcohol dependency may possess genetic mutations that are not present in those with no such issues. The Virginia Commonwealth University study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, attempted to link tolerance for alcohol to genetic disposition by giving ethanol to roundworms and observing its effect on their movement.

The alcohol was seen to directly impact the worms’ locomotive capacity—basically, how fast and far they can crawl—by either activating or inhibiting the genetic coding for a protein complex found in all animals called “switching defective/sucrose non-fermenting.” (SWI/SNF)

The reaction of individual worms to the alcohol appeared to indicate that the SWI/SNF genes might have made them more tolerant to the substance than others. Studies have shown alcohol dependency in humans is often related to how well they tolerate their first drink. As study co-author Brien Riley noted, “A low tolerance to alcohol has a protective element to it, because you can’t drink so much.”

To what degree the SWI/SNF protein complex affects alcohol tolerance is not immediately clear, though it’s known that proteins can have a direct impact on DNA, which in turn can affect the activation of other genes, including the one that alters tolerance. Researchers aren’t sure which gene that is, but hope that their investigation may move medical science a step closer to clarifying the genetic aspects of alcoholism.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.