In the beginning was the worm

Sydney Brenner was an early collaborator with Crick. In the mid-1960s Brenner had begun a project that seemed then as unpromising as the HGP did twenty years later. He was convinced that the next major biological breakthrough after DNA would stem from choosing a simple multicellular organism and discovering all one could about its anatomy, behaviour and genetics. He chose a tiny nematode worm, C. elegans about a millimetre long, and with only 959 cells in its body. Unimpressed biologists described Brenner’s project as the most boring serial electron microscopy project in the history of science, and the multitude of PhD students and post-docs he gathered round him as little more than assembly workers in a Fordist factory.

Fortunately for Brenner however, the MBC shared his vision and funded the work. By the 1980s he had set one of his younger colleagues, John Sulston, the task of sequencing the 100 million bases of the worm’s DNA. Sulston’s skill and tenacity, plus the prestige of the LMB itself, meant that his lab was to become the focal point of the British share of the HGP, heavily funded by the Wellcome Trust. (Not for nothing did religious writer Andrew Brown title his account of Sulston’s work In the Beginning Was the Worm.) Now the largest charitable funder of biomedical science in the world, Wellcome’s role as a major actor in the HGP was not a one-off intervention in genomics; it has continued to fund and shape subsequent large-scale developments, not least the UK Biobank (see Chapter 6). For British life sciences, the Wellcome Trust, in setting the agenda and forcing the government and MRC to follow its line, currently plays a similar role to that of the Rockefeller Foundation, which shaped the development of biochemistry in the 1930s (as we discuss in the next chapter).

The human genome is some 6,000 times as long as that of Sanger’s bacteriophage, and thirty times greater than that of Brenner’s worm.

(Extract from "Genes, Cells and Brains" by Hilary & Steven Rose)

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