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Satisfaction of completing 20 years studying Caenorhabditis elegans


The unique research environment in the Cambridge labs
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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One of the things that we had in our lab was a very large number of... of very... high level, dedicated, post-doctoral fellows, largely from America who came during this period to work on molecular genetics with us. And of course the suppressors and the, the tRNAs there were available for lots and lots of projects, and a large number of people cut their teeth on this and made themselves rather famous as a result of it. But it was part of the work that, you know, provided sustenance for the laboratory and such people, the people who worked on the tRNA from about '65 onwards were Howard Goodman, John Abelson, Malcolm Gefter and in fact Sidney Altman worked on this and Sidney Altman, through this, discovered the RNA processing, because what he found with many of the mutants is that they were blocked at the precursor stage. So he discovered the precursors of phage and of course that took him on to his later work on finding RNA processing and which awarded him the Nobel Prize with Tom Cech later. And that was one of the things that I think we did rather well in Cambridge, which was to have these fields and have people take them and work on them on their own, and each person to have a part of the project that he could run himself. And it taught people really how to do science, and of course had that very comforting thing that no one else in the world was working on it. And that's the greatest thing for all morale in the lab, because if you sit in a laboratory and you think, my God, there are 100 labs working on this project, each of these 100 labs have 40 people in them, that's 4000 to 1 I'm not going to win. Those are terrible odds, and that just means that no one does anything. But what is wonderful is to say, you know, this is exclusive, so to speak, at this stage, the science is, and we can do this without having the hordes come in and, and, you know, turn it into... industrialise it. Basically that's what I think happens in science is we now have managers, we now have a, a scientific/industrial complex, if you like, and so various topics are, are then industrialised, they're exploited to the hilt, and remarkably, they vanish. And I always used to say that the best thing in science is to work out of phase. That is, either half a wavelength ahead or half a wavelength behind. It doesn't matter. But if you're out of phase with the fashion you can do new things. But this I think was very important, at least for the lab, attracted a lot of people. For the first time they could combine genetics and function studied at the molecular level with RNA.

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: Howard Goodman, John Abelson, Malcolm Gefter, Sidney Altman, Tom Cech

Duration: 3 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010