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Estimating the genetic complexity of Caenorhabditis elegans


The freedom to work without short-term justification
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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The whole of the C. elegans [Caenorhabditis elegans] project wasn't anything like the science I'd done earlier. Science I'd done earlier, is I'd come in at the right time, so that you could formulate the questions, go and do an experiment and in... if not that day then at least the next day you would know the answer. The C. elegans was... was very much more strategic. In fact, it took a long time to mature, and I don't think we could have done it in the environment that requires short-term justification for anything. And this I think is... was the feature of science in the '60s, that in fact having done quite a lot and got yourself good marks for it, you were kind of given a... a blanker cheque than most other people. In fact, the great... I always believe the great thing to foster was what I called the horse and cart paradox. You see, what you want to do is to have the people sitting in the driving seat believe that they are steering it, whereas, of course, what we know is that the horse knows where to go and is just taking the cart where he wants to. So I think the Medical Research Council, who financed all the work, because there had been so many glorious things done, just said, well, you know, they can't go far wrong. And I think being able to work without this endless justification that is common today... the endless thing just saying, you know, which I feel is completely stifling to creative work in science... I think made that... made that subject. Of course that and the fact that there were a lot of young people willing to gamble. They came, as I said, there were a lot of Americans that came to the lab, they came to work on transfer RNA, several of them switched half-way. And sort of from the '70s onwards, many, many people joined the project.

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: Medical Research Council, Caenorhabditis elegans

Duration: 2 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010