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Books, Journals, New Media
June 4, 2003

Genetics Memoir

Author Affiliations

Books, Journals, New Media Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA; David H. Morse, MS, University of Southern California, Norris Medical Library, Journal Review Editor.

JAMA. 2003;289(21):2870-2871. doi:10.1001/jama.289.21.2870

A scientist willing to reveal his conviction that the microscopic squigglings of a simple worm "are the most beautiful things imaginable" commands the reader's attention—for his candor as much as for his passion for science. Sir John Sulston (the "Sir" was added when he was knighted in 2001) has collaborated with Georgina Ferry on The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome, a memoir of Sulston's life in science.

The worm in question is Caenorhabditis elegans, a nematode 1 mm long that reaches adulthood in 3 days (resulting in a blessedly brief adolescence). Its most common adult form is as a hermaphrodite with precisely 959 cells. The eminent British scientist Sidney Brenner championed the worm as a model for learning how multicelled organisms develop from a single progenitor cell and for understanding how genes shape the developing animal. In Brenner's Cambridge laboratory, Sulston patiently unraveled the lineage of every cell in the larval worm's nervous system, discovering that certain cells regularly migrated and other cells routinely died. Later he spent 8 hours a day at the microscope for a year and a half puzzling out the complete lineage of all cells in the developing embryo. In 2002, along with Brenner and Robert Horvitz, Sulston was awarded a Nobel Prize "for their discoveries concerning ‘genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.'"