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Caenorhabditis elegans: the perfect hermaphrodite


'Just bring me back some soil from holiday'
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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I had got a lot of nematodes, because I was trying to find out which grow best. In fact, I wanted to do temperature-sensitive mutants. And so I thought most nematodes, you see, live... the highest temperature's 25 degrees. So I thought what if we get nematodes from the equator? Surely, you know, that... they... they might be used to 37 degrees, because then we can get temperature-sensitive mutants, you know, and begin to... do the whole of the conditional lethality more easily. This is totally the wrong idea but is an amusing story. And so I was talking to Victor who was then director of research for Shell, and took a map of the world and we looked at where all oil facilities are around the world. And there's a lot of them on the equator, plus or minus 5 degrees. Oil in Nigeria, Malaysia, South America. And so through Victor it was arranged that everybody would bring back some soil dug up, you know, from outside the airport, from which I, I got nematodes, you know. I just filtered them through, stuck them on agar plates and, with bacteria as their food, and just saw them grow. I also got from Rothamstead a lot of nematodes that eat fungi and which they were interested in. These were of course plant parasites there. And we also collected a large number from around Cambridge, and every time someone went on holiday I said, just bring back some soil. And Nichol actually went home to Scotland and brought home a sample of soil from which I got a very interesting animal, which was asymmetric, the left side was different from the right side. Unfortunately, we lost the culture - some of these were hard to maintain - but we certainly got up to over 60 of these strains. And these were looked at very quickly for how well they grew and what... could they... could they be cut in the electron microscope, would they fix properly? And we went through a lot of these, and some were just totally awful, they wouldn't cut, they wouldn't fix, and others were very good but their sex life was impossible, wouldn't grow very well. But we collected at the same time a lot of comparative data, because the section we did was straight through the head, and in the head of a nematode contains a tremendous array of sensory organs, all of which are rather beautiful and all of which are enclosed in something of the size of one... of one... of a human red blood cell. So you can just see everything in it.

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: 3 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010