Another Turn of the Worm
In the Beginning Was the Worm: Finding the Secrets of Life in a
viii + 244 pp.
Columbia University Press, 2003. $27.95.
In 2002, three scientists shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or
Physiology for their research on the nematode Caenorhabditis
elegans, affectionately known to those who work with it as
"the worm." In the Beginning Was the Worm, by the
British journalist Andrew Brown, examines the path to this
accomplishment, providing an interesting lay account focused on the
people associated with the groundbreaking research. The book conveys
the sense of excitement and purpose one finds within this research
community, but it provides only a glimpse of some of the
technicalities of the research, likely an unfortunate trade-off
resulting from the extremely accessible prose style.
Brown's main characters are the worm workers originally based at the
Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, England,
particularly Sydney Brenner, who is said to have "found"
the worm in the mid-1960s. The story of its adoption and taming by
Brenner as an organism for genetic research, with the goal of
eventually understanding development and especially behavior and
brain function, has become familiar as a paradigmatic instance of
developing what has come only comparatively recently to be called a
"model organism." The worm is extremely simple in terms of
cellular and morphological structures, which allowed the research
group that gathered at the LMB in the late 1960s and early 1970s
eventually to describe the organism in terms of its complete cell
lineages and neural connections. When this information was combined
with early mutation analyses done by Brenner and his laboratory
assistants, it arguably made the worm an unprecedented resource for
further investigations of the most basic biological processes.
C. elegans thus was an obvious choice to become one of the
model organisms in the Human Genome Project. In 1998 it became the
first multicellular organism for which full genome sequencing was
completed. John Sulston at the LMB and Bob Waterston at Washington
University in St. Louis led this sequencing project and later became
leaders of the international human genome project. Thus the worm can
be used as "a transparent lens through which the rest of
biology can be studied," in Brown's words, as well as a
microcosm for examining historical and social aspects of the genome
projects. But as those who identify themselves as worm workers are
always quick to emphasize, the worm is, in Brown's words,
"beautiful in itself." It is this enthusiasm and
dedication to the organism that Brown's story brings to life.
Brown's narrative is particularly compelling when it focuses on the
motivations and experiences of the worm workers. His descriptions
are flowery yet accurate (down to the details about Brenner's
eyebrows); they rival Horace Freeland Judson's vivid images of the
founders of molecular biology in The Eighth Day of Creation
(Simon and Schuster, 1979). Moreover, Brown conveys the complex
ethos of the LMB during this period, as a place where Nobel prizes
were the expectation but publication and grant applications were not
priorities, as they were largely unnecessary given the institution's
funding structure (for more on the LMB ethos, see Soraya de
Chadarevian's Designs for Life, Cambridge University Press,
2002). Brown also correctly notes that many researchers had
nontraditional career paths for biologists but came to share
Brenner's vision of the worm as a way to understand the fundamental
building blocks of life. Brown's interviews with LMB technicians and
other support workers provide details of daily laboratory life that
are crucial to the story, particularly because of the technical
expertise required—for instance to slice, prepare, photograph
and reassemble thousands of sections of worms in order to construct
the neural wiring diagrams.
Brown's account briefly covers some of the early forays into using
worms to understand genetics and development, which I and other
historians have described elsewhere, but he does not explicitly
explore why and how those projects failed. His book only lays the
groundwork for an explanation of why this one succeeded, and he
focuses primarily on strong personalities with particular
intellectual commitments as causal factors. Thus this is an account
of those who, as Brown puts it, gambled and won. It is disappointing
that he spent little effort examining the blind alleys, setbacks and
intricacies—scientific, social and otherwise—that
accompanied the worm's success. The completion of the sequencing,
which is a starting point for the ongoing research projects in the
worm community as we know it today, serves as the primary climax of
Brown's descriptions, which convey considerable information about
the biological details associated with this organism and its
handlers, are likely to leave the reader desperate to see this
amazing creature and how research is done with it, but the
photograph on the cover of the book is all they are offered by way
of illustration (references to useful Web sites are provided
throughout to compensate). Historians of biology are likely to be
frustrated by the lack of direct citation to source materials
written by historians and worm workers themselves, on which the
account clearly relies, and by the overreliance on interviews and
Biologists will probably be irritated by the errors in some
scientific details, which are admittedly difficult to avoid when
adapting technical material for a general audience. Worm workers may
find the account to be a reiteration of the sometimes-tall tales
told within the community. But some of the earliest history of the
LMB worm project, and particularly the attention Brown pays to
nonscientists, should prove of considerable interest, providing a
new founders' story for the field. Most important, Brown should be
commended for making what may seem to be obscure, esoteric science
both accessible and exciting.—Rachel A. Ankeny, History
and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney, Australia
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