The latest issue of Genetics to flop onto my desk has a rather nice article by Sydney Brenner entitled “In the Beginning Was the Worm…“. This brief article (in the regularly excellent Perspectives section) presents an account of the origins of Caenorhabditis elegans research, by the beast’s main man, research which ultimately earned him Nobel Prize fame. I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of Brenner’s career (that’s probably quite easy to track down on the interweb), but suffice it to say that after forging a seriously important career in prokaryotic genetics and molecular biology, he was instrumental in establishing an entirely novel experimental system. For a Drosophilist such as myself, C. elegans seems particularly simple – it has a defined number of cells per animal (dependent on sex), and the cell lineage tuns out to be pretty much invariant in the wild type. In origin, it’s a soil dwelling nematode. For my part, the big influence was the genome mapping and sequencing technologies that were developed for C.elegans, and which we applied to Drosophila. The picture below shows an adult (and, dare I say it, elegant) C. elegans.
I think what’s quite interesting is how doing science has changed over the last 30 or so years – to quote from Brenner’s article:
If one arrived at the lab at the reasonable hour of 10 am, there was just time to open one’s mail before adjourning to the canteen for morning coffee, usually prolonged by a very interesting discussion on some aspect of science. This did not leave much time before lunch, which naturally was also accompanied by discussion that was terminated only by rushing off to attend an afternoon seminar on the Bohr effect in hemoglobin or the like. That brought one to afternoon tea and after that there was hardly enough time to start anything in the lab before adjourning to the pub for liquid and intellectual refreshment. It was only after dinner that the real work started and the lab then filled up with the owls.
Comparing that approach to doing science to the modern University life of bureaucracy (both for research and teaching), the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise – the UK’s quite burdensome system for assessing research excellence) and research grant application treadmill is a little saddening, even taking into account a bit of historical licence. I don’t think I’ve had that discursive and open-ended approach to scientific work since I was a graduate student.
Indeed, the prospect nowadays of obtaining funding for an entirely new model system, and then following up with the first publication 6 years on would presumably be a little remote…
On the reasons for moving on from C.elegans research Brenner is perhaps a little modest:
People often ask me why I left C. elegans research just when it was getting really interesting. The answer is simple: The people doing it were much better than I was, and attendance at one meeting showed me that their students were even better than they were.
Brenner, S. (2009). In the Beginning Was the Worm … Genetics, 182 (2), 413-415 DOI: 10.1534/genetics.109.104976