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Starting to work with nematodes and Richard Goldschmidt's paper


Choosing the nematode
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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In the course of my reading I came across the micro-metazoa. These are little animals which are extremely interesting, and there were two kinds that I got interested in. One were rotifers, which I… of course, I'd known again as an amateur microscopist, and I actually went out to one of the ponds outside Cambridge and had a culture of rotifers – you could find these. And these looked very exciting, that is they weren't like… they weren't single cells; they were collections of cells. And these had sexual cycles and they had intestines and they had muscles and they were really small animals. And of course during the course of all this reading I came across the nematodes. And these looked far more promising. I had looked very carefully at the rotifers, and although I played around with them, extremely beautiful to look at, they had impossible sexual cycles, they were too slow. And they had cycles such as the male was a haploid; that is the organism grew parthenogenetically, they formed haploid males. This is an organism that treats the male sex with great disrespect, because the male is actually produced – simply there to fertilise females – this is a male that actually has no feeding organs. I mean, it's a waste of time, because they're going to die anyway, and so these males are simply there to exchange genes between these populations, and to make sure that the mix that greets the next season is such that nature can select again for the best for that season. And quite a lot of parthenogenesis and the… the sexuality of these systems is organised in that direction. That is, the species is there but it has a flexibility, it'll grow parthenogenetically, but without exchange of genetic material you can't say that the best ones from one season are just the ones you need next year, because next year could be… although it's more or less the same, it could be very different. And so a lot of genes expire, and they lay these eggs which survive the winter, these fertilised eggs, called mictic eggs. In fact, we thought that was the beginnings, but it's an impossible cycle. I also then found that these were very irritating, because they lived in three dimensions – they swam around in water. And I thought: well, I want an organism with a two-dimensional world, like bacteria, which can live on the surface of a petri dish. And so the… the nematodes seem… seemed to have all the properties; and the more I read about this the more I became totally excited by it and decided that this is the organism that I would go for.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Cambridge

Duration: 3 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 24 January 2008