Author(s): Andrew Brown
Polymathic and prodigious, Sydney Brenner is one of the most fascinating scientists in the world. Tiny and transparent, the nematode worm C. elegans is one of the world's least conspicuous animals. Yet when Brenner found the worm in 1965, he realised he had discovered an organism that would help him unpick the secret clockwork of life. In 2002, Brenner's work with the worm was rewarded when he, Bob Horvitz and Sir John Sulston shared the Nobel Prize for their researches. Starting with one helper in a back room of a laboratory in Cambridge, the worm project grew until it led to the sequencing of the human genome in huge purpose-built biotech factories. The worm itself was the first animal ever to have its own genome sequenced, in 1998. This is a story where the science starts with toothpicks, and ends with supercomputers: yet at the end of it, we still don't properly understand the most studied animal on earth. Ever since Descartes, scientists have believed that animals are really complicated machines. The worm, so simple that it has no brain and every cell in its body can be counted and traced, is as basic as an animal can be. Uncountable trillions of them have been sliced, poisoned, centrifuged and frozen in fulfilment of the dream of understanding them as if they were made from tiny Meccano sets. The transparent worm has become a lens through which the whole of biology can be studied. Yet complete understanding constantly recedes. 'When we understand the worm, we will understand life,' says John Sulston. Along with Horvitz he discovered the phenomenon of programmed cell death in the worm, which is essential to the way that all animals grow; and Horvitz later showed that the genes which led to cell death in the worm did the same in humans. In the Beginning Was the Worm is not just a riveting account of the study of one small organism. It also explains why scientists believe that genes will make sense of all their understandings of biology, and how much work will be needed before that dream comes true.