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Another Turn of the Worm

Rachel Ankeny

In the Beginning Was the Worm: Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite.
Andrew Brown.
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 the story.

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 secondary sources.

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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