The poster child for basic research might well be a one-celled green algae found in ordinary lakes and ponds. Amazingly, this unassuming creature—called Chlamydomonas—is helping scientists solve one of the most complex and important mysteries of science: How billions of neurons in the brain interact with one another through electrochemical signals to produce thoughts, memories and behaviors, and how malfunctioning neurons may contribute to incurable brain diseases such as Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia.
It may seem counterintuitive that a tiny, relatively simple organism that doesn't even have a brain could help scientists understand how the brain works. But this algae's value to brain scientists is not based on its intellect. Rather, it is based on its light-sensitivity, i.e., the fact that this organism's movements are controlled by light.
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