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The importance of finding the wiring diagram


Choosing electron microscopy to study mutants
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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How were we going to study the mutants? And what I'd come to the conclusion was that we'd have to do electron microscopy. Now, why was that? That was very simple: because if I wanted to see which cell was joined to another cell, I would have to look at membranes. So I'd have to look, and this is the fault of all other microscopic anatomy, they all got lost in the neuropile, they couldn't trace out the connections. But an electron microscope can resolve membranes, can resolve small things, and so we said, well, with the electron microscope you could trace the path quite... quite adequately. And what we needed to do was to do three-dimensional electron microscopy, just get all the information. Now, how were we going to do that? In a very classical mode. I had, as a student, reconstructed a brain of galago by serial sectioning of colloidal sections, and by tracing these on paper and transferring these to slices of wax, I actually made a three-dimensional model of this brain in wax with all the... the holes in it and you could open it up and look inside, and so we decided we'd have to do something like that. We'd have to cut serial sections and we'd have to go from one section to the other and trace it. Now, the electron microscope is extremely powerful, but it has a very tiny window, you can only look at a small piece of it at a time. And so to do this even on one neurone of a higher organism would be... would be impossible. That meant for one to do this on a whole organism, we would have to get something that was very, very small in order to fit it into the window of the electron microscope. And that of course was the dominant condition saying we must go to micro-metazoa, because they were small and they did fit into the window of an electron microscope.

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



Duration: 2 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010