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I am a strong believer in the value of ignorance


Links between the Human Genome project and Caenorhabditis elegans
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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The new genetics can be differentiated from the old genetics because here we go from the genes outwards rather than in the old genetics we went from the phenotype inwards to look for the genes. And I had made contact with the people that were interested in starting the Human Genome Programme [sic]. In fact, when Bob Sinsheimer had his first meeting in 1984, I couldn't go to that and sent two people from the lab. But they had a repeat of that in '85 at Santa Fe and I went to that. And I simply believed that this was going to be the new way of doing biological science and it would open up enormous vistas to us. So the Human Genome Project, as it is called, became a... a central interest of mine. I had been interested in genomic studies in the sense that I realised that once you could clone DNA you could map it in some way. And I spent, it's now nearly 20 years, trying to work out a simple way of doing this that would be logistically able so that someone could make a map of a higher organism on the kitchen table, basically. I'm not there yet, I'm nearly there. And we started doing work on bacteria to try to map these. That got quite far, John Sulston joined me in this bacteria mapping, and then he decided he would try and apply the technology we developed to C. elegans [Caenorhabditis elegans]. And the C. elegans project then grew into an enormous genome project which is now... with aims of sequencing the entire genome. I decided that I would go for the human genome. Now, the reasons for that is that I think if we've got to do this amount of work on an animal, one animal, then let's choose the animal that's of most interest. And from this egocentric point of view I think man is extremely interesting. The point is that you are no longer conditioned by experimental constraints. When we did classical experimental genetics we had to go through endless selections to get an organism that fitted into the window of the electron microscope, or that would grow rapidly in a laboratory, or that... and that you could freeze, and had the appropriate life cycle that you could do experiments with. And this throughout the whole of this made enormous constraints about what you could choose, and that half of the art of choosing was in fact a piece of science in its own right, so that one could get something started in this way.

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: Caenorhabditis elegans, John Sulston, Robert Sinsheimer

Duration: 3 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010