Many organisms have stress response pathways, components of which share homology with players in complex human disease pathways. Research on stress response in the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans has provided detailed insights into the genetic and molecular mechanisms underlying complex human diseases. In this review we focus on four different types of environmental stress responses - heat shock, oxidative stress, hypoxia, and osmotic stress - and on how these can be used to study the genetics of complex human diseases. All four types of responses involve the genetic machineries that underlie a number of complex human diseases such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. We highlight the types of stress response experiments required to detect the genes and pathways underlying human disease and suggest that studying stress biology in worms can be translated to understanding human disease and provide potential targets for drug discovery.
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