This is a transcript of our episode “Virus Busters: How scientists are working to stop the coronavirus”

Listen to the episode: Website | Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Note: This episode was released on April 7, 2019. It’s part of an ongoing series to answer kids’ questions about the coronavirus — and viruses in general — and shed light on how scientists are learning more about this virus every day. 

This episode dives into how antiviral medicines and vaccines work. You can also check out the latest episodes in this series: and Masks and mouth mist: What we know about the coronavirus now and Coronavirus: How to be a helper from home. For the most up-to-date information, please head to trusted sources like the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Gus: You’re listening to Brains On, where we’re serious about being curious.

Brains On is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Bob (talking to himself): OK, Bob’s Log. Physical distancing, day… oh, hm. Hard to keep track of the days, these days. I… I’ll start today’s log with my schedule, instead. 

Bob: 7:30 a.m. (alarm clock sound) Wake up! I brush my teeth, take my lukewarm bath, and, comb my eyebrows. Then,  (hand washing noises) Wash hands! For 20 seconds, of course! That's two rounds of the happy birthday song! (Bob humming: happy birthday to you,) (sink tap shut off) Remember to moisturize! Then, get dressed. Something stylish, but comfortable. How about a vest. 

Bob: 8am. Breakfast. I think I’ll have oatmeal with soggy pears, Oh! And I’ll read some of my old tax returns. (pages turn sound) That’s a good start to the day.

Bob: Then, well, 9:30. Wash hands! (hand washing noises) (Bob humming, singing: (second line) happy birthday to you,)

Bob: 10:00. OK moisturize, Oh! And then, I know what I’ll do, I’ll arrange saltine crackers into an Eiffel tower sculpture! 

Bob: Plus, (crunching) Mmmm, Saltines are the best comfort food.

Bob: At 11, I organized a zoom call with everyone from Brains On headquarters! That should be nice, 

Menaka: Hey everybody!

Marc: Marc's here, hello!

Sanden: Hey, Bob!

Molly: Hey, Molly's here!

Bob: Hi, everybody, Hi Molly! Hi Sanden! You look just the same. 

Sanden: Aw, thanks. Yeah. No, I pride myself on looking the same every single day. That's why I never change my underwear. 

Bob: Noon. Time to wash my hands again! (hand washing noises) (Bob singing, tune of happy birthday, last two lines: I’m destroying little viruses, getting rid of all of you.)

Bob: Then, finally, lunch — those plain lasagna noodles in the fridge are just calling my name. Maybe I’ll add cottage cheese and watch a livestream from a zoo — I love watching nocturnal animals sleep during the day! 

Bob: 1:30 is probably a good time to exercise — today I think I’ll focus on ankle circles and child’s pose.  

Bob: And at 2:30, I’ll Listen to the new episode of Brains On! I wonder what it’ll be about? Will I be in it this time? I really hope so! Only one way to find out!

(theme music)

Molly: You’re listening to Brains On from American Public Media. I’m Molly Bloom and I’m joined once again by our old friend Gus from Seattle. Hi Gus!

Gus: Hi, Molly.

Molly: So, Gus, how are you feeling these days?

Gus: I don't think I'm very worried. I'm just bored and fine.

Molly: Okay, so what's something small that you really miss right now, that was easy before?

Gus: School, seeing my friends, and birthday parties.

Molly: Yes, I definitely miss those things too. Well, okay, let's look at the positive What's one cool thing you've been doing while you're stuck at home?

Gus: No school, not seeing my friends, and no birthday parties.

Molly: So it's good and bad, getting some home time to kind of just chill out and relax. So last time we talked you were doing a lot of drones. Has anything changed? Are you still in drone land.

Gus: Not really. I think I'm biking more, and doing more media, like talking to my friends more.

Molly: So, in your day to day, do you have a routine that you follow?

Gus: Well, I do my schoolwork that includes like French and writing and math and my trombone and all that other stuff I do. And in the morning, I read and have breakfast. And after that I have outside time. And after that I can do what I want, like screen time or talk with my friends and do that stuff.

Molly: Well, we also want to know what the rest of you have been doing too.

Gus: After all, we're in uncharted territory. There are no rules about what to do at home. Everyone's just making it up as they go along.

Molly: Right, which means everyone's days look a little different. Here are some of the things you've been up to:

Lily: Hi, my name is Lily since I have to stay home I've been making mazes and trees for my hamster boba.

Eli: I'm Eli and I've been making things with coding.

Saxon: My name is Saxon. And while I've been at home self isolating, I've built a cardboard safe and video games.

Sean: Hi, I'm Sean. What I've been doing is kind of boring. I've just been playing catch with my dad and doing my schoolwork. Goodbye!

Molly: Molly: That was Lily, from Knoxville, Eli, Saxon and Sean from Santa Ana California. That is quite a range of things to do, even in your own house.

Gus: And if you've been doing something creative or super educational or just plain fun, we want to hear about it.

Molly: Record yourself explaining it and send it to us at brains slash contact


Molly: Well, while we've been doing our part to stop this virus by staying home, scientists have been hard at work looking for ways to fight coronavirus.

Gus: Which is something Connor was curious about.

Connor: Hello, I’m Connor, And I would like to know how many people are working on the cure for coronavirus?

Molly: There’s no official count, but the good news is all around the world -- thousands -- maybe tens of thousands -- of people are working to curb the spread of this germ.

Gus: Yeah, some are working in hospitals -- some are working in labs -- and some are working from home.

Molly: Brains On Producer Menaka Wilhelm’s got the story.

Menaka: Hey Molly and Gus! So the first thing about this new coronavirus is that it is very new. So for many scientists, the first step in finding treatments is actually getting to know this virus. That’s what Rob Kozak is working on. He’s a microbiologist at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Canada. 

Rob: so it's important whenever there's a new virus that sort of emerges and makes people sick, we want to make sure that we actually are able to isolate that virus, so that we can, we can do all sorts of experiments or develop new therapies and, and, and new vaccines.

Menaka: When Rob says isolate the virus — he means he and his labmates figured out how to grow little groups of coronaviruses, starting with a swab of snot from someone who got sick with this coronavirus. Total opposite of what we want outside the lab. 

Gus: Uh, yeah. I’d rather stay far away from a sample like that, thank you very much.

Menaka: Same. But growing viruses is super useful in this special case. More viruses means we can do more experiments on them. And that means more questions answered. Researchers can look into how the virus spreads, which medicines might stop it, and also which vaccines might train our bodies to fight it. 

Rob: So the first thing that we're doing is we're sharing it with as many labs as we can.

Menaka: Other labs — besides Rob’s -- are also sharing their virus samples and their virus knowledge too. Scientists are looking into two big ways of helping us fight this virus. First, there’s medicines to slow down viruses, for people who get sick.  Those are called antiviral medicines.

Molly: Ah - anti, like against. And viral - like a virus. Anti-viral. Sweet word.

Menaka: It truly is. And, before we get into those medicines, we’ve got to recap how viruses work.  When a virus does its infection thing, basically, it sneaks into one of your cells. Once it gets in, it finds the cell’s protein production machinery to make more of itself. 

Virus: OK here we go! 1 me 2 me 3 me 4 me more me!

Menaka: So, imagine the virus hightailing it to the nearest cellular copy machine —

Virus: Ah haaaaah! 

Menaka: and copying its face as many times as possible. Except, instead of just making a million pointless pictures of its face, a virus makes actual clones of itself. And those new viruses go and copy themselves in other cells.

Virus: Selfie selfie selfie!

Menaka: And on and on and on. A medicine’s job is to stop that from happening. 

Molly: Could a medicine just kind of… unplug the copy machine? 

Menaka: It could — but you and your cells -- the ones that you need for your body to run -- you need the cellular copy machine, too! Those cellular copy machines make it possible for you to get oxygen from the air — they’re how you make the enzymes that digest your food, and how you grow your muscles to pick up heavy stuff. This is where viruses are kind of genius — they travel super light, and they rely on your cell’s equipment to do most of their dirty work.

Lexi: So we need to find something that only harms the virus and doesn't really utilize any of our typical replication machinery.

Menaka: That’s Lexi Walls. She’s researching medicines and vaccines to take down this new coronavirus at the University of Washington. Here’s how she described what an antiviral medicine has to do: 

Lexi: imagine that the virus has to perform some sort of action.

Menaka: So, yeah, like, copying its face on the copy machine,

Lexi: and then you put boxing gloves, it can no longer use its fingers.

Virus: Ah! Why! nooooooo!

Menaka: Thinking of trying to use a copy machine with boxing gloves on sounds silly — but this is totally how antiviral medicines work, just at a really small scale — they’re chemicals that physically fit onto virus parts to get in their way. And there’s three main ways that medicine boxing gloves can stop a virus. Some medicines try to stop viruses from getting into cells. 

Virus: (jiggling door handle, knocking) hmm. This worked before this boxing glove appeared!!

Lexi: And then if the virus can't enter the cell, it will eventually break down and won't be able to infect you.

Virus: No!

Menaka: Other medicines stop the virus from making more copies of itself — they get in the way of a virus using the copy machine, basically.

Virus: No!

Lexi: Then the virus can get in, but then no more virus can be made. So only that single cell or a couple of cells will actually be infected and it won't be able to spread.

Menaka: A third kind of medicine stops the virus from getting out of whatever cell it infects. 

Virus: This door won't open! How do I get out of here, I've got to find a way out!

Virus 2: I'm also trapped!

Virus 3: Me three!

Lexi: And same on the other end, if the virus can't leave, or if it can't properly produce what it needs, then the infection is contained to one or a couple cells.

Menaka: For an antiviral medicine to work really well, it needs to fit onto part of this coronavirus super tightly -- like the way legos fit together -- and there isn’t a medicine, or a chemical compound, that matches this coronavirus perfectly, right now. But scientists are testing new medicines, and also ones that work against other diseases, to try to find more ways to help people who get this sickness.

Lexi: There have been some compounds already identified and people are testing them as fast as they possibly can.

Menaka: So hopefully, soon, scientists will know which medicines really get in this virus’s way. The perfect virus boxing gloves. But there’s something else they’re trying, too. It’s a way to make our own bodies better at fighting off this virus. And I’ll tell you all about that in a minute…

(alarm sound)

Menaka: But that sound means first -- I have a videoconference dance party scheduled, so I’ll talk to you in a little bit. 

Gus: Thanks Menaka! 

Molly: Well, Gus let’s have a little party of our own. An ear party -- with the…


Molly: Are you ready? All right, here it is.

(Mystery Sound Plays)

Molly: What is your guess?

Gus: Hmm. Maybe like a salt shaker, or maracas,

Molly: Something shaking around is what you're hearing.

Gus: Yeah.

Molly: Well, we're going to give you another chance to hear it and guess a little bit later in the show.

Molly: Do you want a weekly does of fun sciency activities that go perfect with our podcast, then boy, do we have a newsletter for you.

Gus: Join the brains on fan club and get a weekly email with suggestions for experiments, book recommendations, and even picks from our team about some of the stuff they're into.

Molly: Yes, this week I recommended a live video feed where you can watch the Northern Lights up in Canada. It is very soothing.

Gus: To join, just go to brains slash fans.

Molly: While you're on our website, you can also click 'contact' to send us a drawing, mystery sound, or question like this listener did:

Louisa: My name is Louisa. I live in Chicago. And I want to know, do worms sleep? We'll answer that at the end of the show.

Molly: And we'll also shout out the latest group of Honor Roll inductees.

Gus: So keep listening!

Tophat: Hi, I’m a man in a top hat.

Giraffe: And I’m a giraffe.

Sandwich: And I’m a six-foot party sub! Oh yeah! Haha! I’ve got pickles, salami, ham, applesauze…

Tophat: Did you say… applesauze?

Sandwich: What? No. That’s silly. HA! I also have mustard, turkey, baby wipes, coupons to Dennys….

Giraffe: Ahem. Well, we’re here because during this time of coronavirus -- it’s important to keep a safe distance from other people, so you don’t risk catching any germs.

Tophat: That’s especially true for when you’re out on a stroll. And the magic distance is six feet. Stay at least six feet from everyone you pass. Because people can be coughing or sneezing viruses even before they feel sick!

Giraffe: And -- to help you visualize six feet, just think of me! A giraffe! My neck is six feet long!

Tophat: Or me! A man in a tophat! Picture me lying down and keep that distance between you and everyone else.

Sandwich: Or me! A six foot party sub that’s memorized all of Shrek 2! It’s a good movie! Ha ha!

Tophat: You can also think of a door - they’re just over 6 feet.

Giraffe: Or maybe a coat rack -- or two golden retrievers standing in a line, nose to tail.

Sandwich: Or like seven beefy rats! Five if they’re really long ones! Careful they bite!

Tophat: And if you’re out walking and see someone coming in the opposite direction, remember to step aside so they can pass at a six foot distance.

Giraffe: And if you’re walking with your parents or siblings, walk single file while someone is passing. That makes it easier for that person to keep a safe distance from all of you.

Sandwich: And if you see my copy of Shrek 2 on DVD let me know! Because I totally lost it! Uh oh!

Tophat: So remember, six feet for strolls!

Giraffe: And six feet for safety!

Sandwich: Oh, here it is. It was in my DVD player the whole time, hah! Oops, some salami fell out of my mouth. Anybody want to eat that? It's still good! 

Molly: You’re listening to Brains On. I’m Molly.

Gus: I’m Gus! 

Menaka: (slightly out of breath) And I’m Menaka! OK got my dancing in, so let’s get to this second virus-buster. It’s a vaccine! So, most likely, a shot that would give you a boost if you ever had to fight off this virus. Here’s researcher Lexi Walls again.

Lexi: the goal of the vaccine is really to be like a training program for your body.

Menaka: (music) Human bodies — and, especially kids’ bodies -- know how to handle infections. They’re infection fighting machines! First, your cells recognize viral invaders. 

Tough cell: (sniffs) do i smell… trouble?

Menaka: They set off alarms. (alarm sound) Then, cells called white blood cells make specific tags that stick to a virus — those tags are called antibodies. Antibodies mark the virus… for destruction! And then specialist cells destroy it.

Tough cell: Hasta la vista -- virus.

Menaka: So that’s your immune system, in a small motivational nutshell. 

Gus: Wow. Thanks for doing all that immune system.

Menaka: Yeah. It’s awesome. But fighting off a virus, it takes time. Your body actually makes a whole bunch of different antibodies to fight a virus — some work better than others. 

Tough cell: Here, try this one. Eh, Come back tomorrow if it doesn’t work for you.

Menaka: It can take days, or sometimes weeks, for your cells to really streamline their strategy for fighting a virus. And while your cells are working on that, sometimes a virus can spread and make you sick. That’s where vaccines, the immune system’s training program, come in. 


Menaka: Vaccines are weak, dead, or chopped up versions of viruses. They won’t make you sick, but your cells get to practice recognizing virus parts, 

Tough cell: Hey! That’s the trouble! It’s coming from over here!! 

Menaka: You get a head start making antibodies, 

Tough cell: (exhale — as if bench pressing) 1 antibody, 2 antibody, 3 antibody

Menaka: and basically, getting really good at wiping the virus out.

Molly: So vaccines basically give your immune system a dummy version of a virus to practice on -- so it can more easily wipe out the real thing?

Menaka: Precisely. So knowing what the virus looks like, and what’s inside of it — that’s an important step toward being able to make a vaccine like this. And the good news is, it doesn’t seem like this coronavirus is changing too much, over time — so a vaccine could protect us for a while — unlike the flu shot, which changes every year since those viruses change really often. But there are still questions to answer before a vaccine is ready. Here’s researcher Rob Kozak again.

Rob: We need to know what are the best targets on the vaccine for our immune system.

Menaka: Remember how antiviral medicines need to fit onto virus parts like boxing gloves? It’s the same with antibodies — some fit better than others — so scientists are trying to figure out which vaccines will get our bodies to make the best antibodies. 

Rob: which of them will will get our immune system the best activated so that we that we get a good a good antibody response and a good immune response that will protect us.

Menaka: You might’ve heard that a vaccine will take a while to be ready. A big reason for that is,  we need to make sure any vaccine we develop is safe.

Rob: the thing that probably takes us the longest is just doing all the important safety studies.

Menaka: Safety studies are experiments where researchers test a vaccine on a group of animals, or people. These tests are also called trials, and they take a while - at least several months. Scientists have to repeat experiments several times to double check their work, and each experiment takes some time, because after someone gets the vaccine, it takes time for their body to start making those antibodies we talked about. 

Rob: The actual experiments don't take that long. It's just it's just waiting for the immune system to kick in.

Menaka: The good news is, the World Health Organization says scientists are already working on dozens of different vaccines and some of them are already doing safety trials. There are thousands of scientists working on this. A lot of very smart, capable people are working on it everyday. And they’re going to keep working on it, just like health care workers are going to keep taking care of people who do get sick. And the rest of us, we’ve just got to keep washing our hands and keeping our distance. 

Gus: Thanks, Menaka! 

Menaka: You’re welcome!


Kara: I’m Kara!

Gilly: I’m Gilly!

Kara: We’re viruses and this is our podcast….

Gilly: Going Viral with Kara and Gilly!

Kara: yay!

Gilly: Viralinos -- if we sound a little different today, it’s because we are recording this -- not from our studio…

Kara: oh no no no.

Gilly: But from -- a closet!

Kara: Well, it’s dirty tissue laying on the floor of a closet but you get the picture.

Gilly: Right right. All the studios are closed and honestly -- we’re not leaving this tissue. Because things are dangerous outside. 

Kara: Yeah, because of that coronavirus -- Humans are sanitizing! They’re washing! They’re not even touching their faces!

Gilly: Oh dude -- what I would not give for a good nose pick right now.

Kara: I mean… yeah... I would love to ride the finger train to booger town. But alas.

Gilly: So, we’ve got to be extra careful, lest some human destroy us completely with some soap.

Kara: Or a sanitizing wipe.

Gilly: Ughhhh - gives me chills. Anyway, we’re doing a special episode all about us viruses and how epic we are.

Kara: Because why not?

Gilly: Yeah - so let’s kick it off!


Gilly: First thing you need to know about us viruses -- we’re not bacteria.


Gilly: Bacteria are much bigger than us and they are single celled organisms.

Kara: Like lactobacillus or e-coli or streptococcus.

Gilly: And they can reproduce on their own -- which they LOVE to talk about all the time.

Kara: So annoying.

Gilly: So yeah, we’re not cells and we can’t do that. We need to infect cells to reproduce. It’s… it’s fine, you know whatever.

Kara: (underbreath) At least we can’t be killed by antibiotics like those dweebs.

Gilly: Moving on. Another thing about us viruses -- we’re everywhere.

Kara: Not like how scrunchies are suddenly everywhere -- because like, that’s a trend and will go away at some point -- but we’re not going away and we’re way more everywhere than scrunchies.

Gilly: Yeah - we’re in the sky, underground, in caves, in the ocean -- it’s hard to find any place on Earth without a virus on it.

Kara: But - check it -- the vast majority of viruses can’t infect humans. SO CHILL PEOPLE.

Gilly: But speaking of infecting - name a type of life on Earth and there are viruses that infect it. Animals?

Kara: We infect them.

Gilly: Plants?

Kara: We infect them.

Gilly: Fungi?

Kara: We infect them.

Gilly: Bacteria?

Kara: Believe it or not -- we infect them. There are even viruses -- Gill, cue the mind blowing sound effect --

Gilly: Got it.

Kara: -- There are even viruses that infect OTHER VIRUSES!

Gilly: Kapow! My mind is blown!

Kara: That’s right. But so - viruses, we’re not exactly living things.

Kara: Right, we’re strings of genetic material - like RNA or DNA -- surrounded by a protein shell. We’re much smaller than any cell.

Gilly: Take the polio virus for example -- that one is about 10 THOUSAND times smaller than a GRAIN OF SAND.

Kara: So tiny.

Gilly: And yes, we can’t survive without cells to infect and reproduce in. So really, we’re linked - you and us.

Kara: In fact, some scientists think that as soon as there were living cells on Earth -- there were viruses. How did we get there?

Gilly: We’re not telling. Actually. We have no idea. Viruses don’t leave fossils so it’s hard to know our origin story.

Kara: We like to keep it -- mysterious.

Gilly: So where did we come from? One theory is that billions of years ago -- viruses started as tiny cells that infected other cells - but eventually they ditched all the cell stuff to simplify and just be tiny little strings of genetic code.

Kara: Cool theory bro.

Gilly: Another theory is that long long ago, viruses were part of a cell but escaped to become something different.

Kara: A third theory is that we are aliens from a virus planet and traveled to Earth in a spaceship that just happens to look like a purple corvette with a convertible top and is also powered by rainbows.

Gilly: That’s -- no. No one thinks that Kara. That’s not a theory.

Kara: Well it’s my theory.

Gilly: Riiiight. So anyway…. Since we’re so tiny and so simple, we don’t always last that long outside a body.

Kara: We’re fragile little things. We break down when exposed to sunlight! There’s no virus sunscreen to save us!

Gilly: But that can take some time. So depending on the type of virus and the conditions, we can survive outside a body -- on a surface or something -- for a few hours or days.

Kara: Which is why all those smarty-pants humans are wiping everything down with sanitizers.


Kara: Which is really rude because things like soap and rubbing alcohol actually break apart our little viral bodies so we can’t infect. WE GET IT - YOU DON’T WANT US AROUND!

Gilly: Seriously. But before we go viralinos, we want to leave you with one last epic viral fact. We don’t just infect humans -- sometimes we.. oh wait, should I use the mind blo---

Kara: Of course I have it cued up.

Gilly: Perfect. Okay -- so we don’t just infect humans and other animals -- sometimes we become part. Of their. DNA.

Kara: That’s right, DNA - that’s the instructions cells have for being cells. Some viruses infect things and then eventually become part of that thing’s genetic code. In fact, there are bits of virus DNA in you -- Right. Now.

Gilly: It was probably passed down from generation to generation -- kind of like a little souvenir from an infection long long long ago. But don’t worry, it’s normal and fine to have bits of virus DNA. Everyone has it.

Kara: Yeah - you were born with it. It’s almost like we’re family. Come in for a hug?

Gilly: They’re not falling for it.

Kara: Psssh. Whatever. So viruses -- we’re ancient, we’re epic and we’re kind of part of you.

Gilly: But we also totally want to make you sick so it makes sense you don’t like us.

Kara: Yeah. Hey Gilly, did you know that laughter is a virus?

Gilly: Wait - it is?

Kara: Yeah - because it’s infectious! Ha ha!

Gilly: Oh dear. Welp. That’s it for this episode of Going Viral. Remember!

Kara: Stay Infecty!

Gilly: And don’t get sanitized.


Molly: You know what would be cool? If you all drew some pics of Kara and Gilly doing their show -- after all, they're so tiny we have no idea what they look like. Draw those chatty germs hosting Going Viral -- and send them to us at brains on dot org slash contact. We can't wait to see them. Okay Gus - let’s get back to the important business of guessing that Mystery Sound. Are you ready to try again? Here it is.

(Mystery Sound Plays)

Molly: Okay, so last time you thought salt shaker or maybe maraca? You want to stick with those thoughts, new thoughts. What are you thinking?

Gus: Yeah, I'm gonna, I'm gonna say well, no, I'm gonna change maraca. I think it's like, maybe like an Epsom salt or like a kind of cleansing salt or maybe just regular salt. I don't think it's a maraca.

Molly: Okay. Well, here is the answer.

Lou: Hi, my name is Lou, and I'm from Andover, England. And the sound you just heard was me shaking shakers.

Molly: So you were really close!

Gus: What! I was right the first time.

Molly: I know! A maraca or shaker. Good for making music, you could have a dance party to them while you're stuck at home. Have you have you been playing the instruments at home

Gus: My trombone, I play trombone so…

Molly: Oh, nice. Have you been getting in more practice now that you're home all the time

Gus: Kind of.

Molly: What's your favorite song to play on the trombone?

Gus: My favorite song to play is the theme song to a show I really like called 30 Rock.

Molly. Excellent.

Gus: Wait, do you know that show?

Molly: Oh, yeah, I know 30 Rock. That's like, not a super easy song to play.

Gus: Well, on the trombone, it's only like two or three positions. They're just different notes.

Molly: Ah, got it. Well, I have it on good authority that there is a video of you played this theme song. Let's have a listen before we get to the end of the show.

(Gus playing 30 rock theme)

Molly: Nice work Gus. Very awesome.

(Theme music plays)

Molly: Viruses like the corona virus need living cells to reproduce and over time they break down outside of a host’s body.

Gus: Thousands of researchers all over the world are working on ways to help handle the new coronavirus. 

Molly: They’re trying to find new medicines to help people who get sick. 

Gus: They’re working on vaccines that would teach our bodies how to fight off the coronavirus. 

Molly: And they’re working as fast as they can. In the meantime, we can all help out, too — 

Gus: We can stay home, as much as possible. 

Molly: We can stay 6 feet away from other people if we go outside. 

Gus: And we can keep washing our hands. 

Molly: That’s it for this episode of Brains On.

Gus: Brains On is produced by Menaka Wilhelm, Sanden Totten, Marc Sanchez, and Molly Bloom and Sanden Totten.

Molly: We had production help from Ruby Guthrie and Kristina Lopez and engineering help Andrew Walsh and Eric Romani. Special thanks to Anna Weggel, Tracy Mumford, Phyllis Fletcher, Eric Ringham, Coco Sanchez, Nacho de la Higuera, Bryan Mounce, Katie McVay, Zach Lupetin, Taylor Coffman and Austin Cross.

Gus: Brains on is a nonprofit Public Radio Podcast.

Molly: You can support the show by heading to brains slash fans.

Gus: Now before we Go it's time for our moment of um…

Louisa: Hi Brains On, I want to know, do worms sleep?

Daniel: Sleep for worms happens really quickly. So they fall asleep for a minute or two minutes or so. And they wake back up and they start moving around again. So it's a really different type of sleep. My name is Daniel Gonzales, and I'm a physicist. And I did not expect to be studying worm sleep. But once I started studying worm sleep, I really loved it. And I've been a fan of worms ever since. So we studied C. elegans, which is a tiny, microscopic round worm that you just find out in nature in the soil, if you cut off a millimeter of your hair, that's about the size of a big worm.

I was really interested just making new technologies to study these worms so that biologists could use these tools that I make. And then as I was doing all these engineering projects, these animals would, all of a sudden stop and sit there for a minute or two minutes and then start moving around again. So I just got really consumed by trying to figure out what was going on.

Basically, we wanted to study lots of animals at one time so we make these tiny chambers and each chamber holds one animal, and then load a bunch of worms using water into those chambers. And then you put that under your microscope. And so now you have 30, 40, 50 worms that you can look at inside of these chambers under your microscope and do your experiment.

We found that whenever we put worms, these tiny worms into these really tiny chambers, they just started falling asleep. Under a microscope, it's super easy to see if you have videos. And you can point out the ones that are awake and the point at the ones that are sleeping, they just don't move. And so they kind of flip flop back and forth between being awake and being asleep.

So it's been known for about 20 years or so that these worms do sleep. So they sleep whenever they're growing up, whenever they're becoming adults. And then they also sleep in order to protect themselves from dangerous environments.

So if you wanted a C. elegans worm to fall asleep, I would say you can squeeze them really gently, or you can put them inside of a tiny chamber, or you can heat them up just a little bit or remove their food. And if you want a worm to wake up, I would say, you shine light on them. You can tap them, or maybe even give them a strong chemical stimulation. All these things will wake a worm up.


Molly: We’ll be back soon with more answers to your questions.

Gus: Thanks for listening!