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In the Beginning Was the Worm

In the Beginning Was the Worm: Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    In the Beginning Was the Worm
    Book Description:

    This is the story of how three men won the Nobel Prize for their research on the humble nematode worm C. elegans; how their extraordinary discovery led to the sequencing of the human genome; how a global multibillion-dollar industry was born; and how the mysteries of life were revealed in a tiny, brainless worm.

    In 1998 the nematode worm -- perhaps the most intensively studied animal on earth -- was the first multicellular organism ever to have its genome sequenced and its DNA mapped and read. "When we understand the worm, we will understand life," predicted John Sulston, one of the three Nobel laureates, and his prediction proved astonishingly accurate. Four years later, the research that led to this extraordinary event garnered three scientists a Nobel Prize. Along with Robert Horvitz and Sydney Brenner, Sulston discovered the phenomenon of programmed cell death in the worm, an essential concept that explains how biological development occurs in animal life and, as Horvitz later showed, how it occurs in human life. C. elegans is about as simple as an animal can be, but understanding its genetic organization is helping to reveal the mechanisms of life and, by extension, the mechanisms of our own lives. In the Beginning Was the Worm shows that in order to unlock the secrets of the human genome we must first understand the worm.

    But this story is about more than just the worm. It is about how an eccentric group of impassioned scientists toiled in near anonymity for years, driven only by a deep passion for knowledge and scientific discovery. It is the story of countless hours of research, immense ambition, and one of the greatest discoveries in human history.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53308-9
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Biological Sciences, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    Once upon a time John Sulston was talking to two teenage girls on a train. He was a bearded hippie type, but friendly and serious: a safe man to talk to. Still, when he told them about his work, they giggled ferociously, because he explained that he had spent ten years or so dissecting in intimate detail tiny, transparent, hermaphrodite nematode worms. He wasn’t offended by their laughter. He had often argued with his friends that it was absurd for scientists to be paid more than dustmen, not because dustmen were more useful, but because scientists had so much more...

  5. 1 Sydney Brenner
    (pp. 7-30)

    Morris Brenner was illiterate all his life, though he spoke Yiddish, Russian, Afrikaans and two African languages as well as English. His son, Sydney, learned to read at the age of four, from poverty as much as anything: he was being looked after by a widow who lived in one room, and who spread her table with old newspapers because she could not afford a cloth, and Sydney was simply taught by looking at the patterns the ink made on the paper. Morris was a cobbler, part of the vast Jewish diaspora from tsarist Russia, who ended up outside Johannesburg...

  6. 2 The Worm
    (pp. 31-50)

    Caenorhabditis elegans is about the most unremarkable nematode known to man. There must be others, even less obvious, lurking undiscovered in the crannies of the world since nematodes are overwhelmingly the most numerous animals on earth. If a Martian biologist were to collect, at random, five million animals from the earth, sampling everything he could find, from apes and penguins through fish to the uncountable myriads of insects, almost all of them (four million) would be nematodes. The best estimates of the number of their species range between 100,000 and 10,000,000. The wild disparity of these estimates means that for...

  7. 3 The Programme
    (pp. 51-76)

    Hacking open the worm in a new way rapidly became Brenner’s passion. After two or three years making mutants, he discovered computer programming. As a young man in Johannesburg, he had shared an office for a while with Seymour Papert, who later went off to MIT and invented the Logo programming language for children. So he was aware that computers existed, but it was not until the late Sixties that they captured him. Nowadays he has his e-mail answered by a secretary, preferably one in another continent, and he mutters that young scientists get no work done because they spend...

  8. 4 The Nerves
    (pp. 77-94)

    Most of the work on the worm was done by people of exceptional energy and drive. None of them – except perhaps Brenner – had had a career which ascended in a straight line, if only because the worm, when it started, was off to the side of any imaginable career path; but all the crucial early workers ended up at the summit of their professions. John White is at the University of Madison, Wisconsin; John Sulston ran a third of the public human genome project and Bob Waterston ran another third; Bob Horvitz is at MIT. Brenner, Horvitz and Sulston shared...

  9. 5 Sulston and the Cells
    (pp. 95-118)

    If Sydney Brenner in full flow reminds one of an alpine river, bounding along in an invigorating froth of brilliance, John Sulston has the self-sufficient buoyancy of a dry fly, able to ride the craziest rapids. That is not just because he is well hackled, with a badger beard and hair which – though now trimmed – used once to form a halo round his face. There is also an unsinkable sturdiness to his manner; a kind of enthusiastic competence which inspires trust.

    He did not at first seem destined for any sort of leadership. He came from the kind of high-minded...

  10. 6 Embryonic Lineage
    (pp. 119-130)

    Underlying this progress was the discovery that worms and humans are assembled from the same proteins. Some of the genes responsible for cell death are the same in worms and humans: it was for this discovery that Horvitz won his share of the Nobel prize; but it took him some years to find them. One of the first significant unc mutants was unc-54, which made worms that couldn’t wriggle because their muscle was malformed. A worm whose copy of unc-54 is defective cannot make one of the strands of proteinaceous macaroni which go to make up myosin, an essential muscle...

  11. 7 The Worm Goes West
    (pp. 131-154)

    Bob Edgar met Sydney Brenner in the summer of 1954, when the two men shared a lab bench at a summer school in Cold Spring Harbor on the care and manipulation of phage. The phage – viruses which prey on bacteria – are so simple that it is reasonable to ask whether they are living at all. They are merely strings of DNA wrapped in a protein housing which looks like a moon lander, and they can only reproduce when they have broken into a bacterium which contains all the chemical machinery needed to copy DNA and make proteins from it.


  12. 8 The DNA Revolution
    (pp. 155-176)

    Around 1980, the worm disappeared. This makes it difficult to write about the next part of the story. Until the late Seventies, the investigation of the worm had a visible reality. You could have watched Nichol Thomson slicing them, or Sydney Brenner picking through his mutants at two in the morning, and got some sense of what they hoped to find. Physical experimentation with the worms continued throughout the Eighties and Nineties and led to some important discoveries (which will be dealt with later). Indeed, people still slice worms, and watch them under microscopes, and they still learn things that...

  13. 9 The Sequence
    (pp. 177-214)

    The worm need not have been the animal whose genome led directly to the human’s. That it became so was almost entirely a result of the hard work and collaboration between Sulston, Coulson and Bob Waterston, for there were many other organisms, most of them more famous or more popular, whose DNA was being mapped in the Eighties. Mapping and ultimately sequencing were the obvious next step for any creature which had been intensively studied. The Drosophila effort has already been mentioned. But Drosophila is a much more complicated animal than the worm, and it has a lot more DNA...

  14. 10 The End
    (pp. 215-232)

    The first worm meeting ever held, at Woods Hole, had twenty-four people present; most of them were only part-time worm biologists anyway. Bob Edgar got drunk and made a speech about how the community spirit was disappearing. The 2001 worm meeting had 1600 people gathered on the hillside campus of UCLA . The private campus police patrolled to ensure no one drank alcohol except on one approved evening. Everyone I talked to told me soberly the community spirit was disappearing. They were all having a really good time.

    They were young and tightly focused. I caught a loving couple in...

  15. Note on Sources
    (pp. 233-234)
  16. Index
    (pp. 235-244)