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E1: The first isolated Caenorhabditis elegans mutant


Using John Sulston's method for freezing nematodes
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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One of the things that you want when you're doing a lot of genetics is, in fact, to be able to store them and... to store clones of these animals. With E. coli [Escherichia coli] it was very easy. We just froze them in glycerol. And just put them away like this. So that you could keep this tremendous inventory of different clones. It's one of the... it's one of the databases geneticists want, is to be able to go and find mutants. Phage was perfect, you just keep it in little bottles, a drop or two is enough, so it doesn't take much room. Of course, if you work with mice you've got to keep on breeding them, it's very hard to store. And so we wanted some way of storing these genes, we didn't want to keep on propagating them, because that becomes an enormous labour. And fortunately we very... it was discovered by John Sulston I was doing these experiments as well, I hadn't had much luck, and he discovered that, that if you... the book said that if you froze nematodes, froze anything in liquid nitrogen... of course it was very interesting of... of storage, it's cryogenics and, of course, everybody wants to store things, and we quickly learned that it's very easy to put... to freeze things in liquid nitrogen, it's thawing that's the problem, and there are lots of papers on how you do this with... with people, but we hadn't heard of anybody who'd been successfully thawed, you see. Because, of course, they didn't do it with live people. So what we found was that when you store cells in liquid nitrogen you're supposed to thaw them very rapidly. And... and that was the thing and you're supposed to freeze them rapidly. But we found that if we froze them slowly and thawed them, then this was the best way to do it. And so by slow freezing, about a degree a minute, you could in fact preserve these animals and thaw them and have them come alive. And that was one of the signal advantages of this. Whenever one goes into research on these things there's always these things that happen. If you work long enough you'll always find by dint of trying many things or looking for many things that these... these technical things emerge. And that was a great advantage of these.

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, 1 second

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010