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Why choose Caenorhabditis elegans for gene-behaviour link?


My reasons for choosing Caenorhabditis elegans
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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It's very clear, we were discussing both development and the nervous system as a... as an issue at the time. The nervous system... I had a long interest in, because of... I actually reconstructed a brain of galago when I was a science student in South Africa. We had a good centre of neuroanatomy. I was an extremely good neuroanatomist at the time, because my teachers were neuroanatomists. And so... and with my relationship with Seymour Papert, where I taught him neurophysiology, and I taught neurophysiology in the physiology class, so I was not a novice at this. But I had no idea at that time how you would connect this up with genes. However, why I finally chose an animal was because animals have nervous systems... and not choose a plant. Although I have to say just in passing, I was also very interested in Arabidopsis and had become a foundation member of the Arabidopsis Newsletter, had in fact got some of these plants, grown them, but it seemed to me plants, as I used to say then, were not real animals. And the nervous system is attractive, it's attractive as part of an animal because it embodies so many things that you feel are not going to have a simple explanation. That is... one felt you can't do this with... you could not explain nervous systems with simple things that you used to explain beta-galactosidase induction. At least that's how it seemed there. Now, Seymour Benzer was also interested in the nervous system, but he had decided to go from the gene to behaviour. And I know for certain that at a very early stage I did not see that as a feasible issue, just largely on theoretical grounds, but also because I had become very clear that the units of development were cells, the units of the nervous system were cells. And I know this because I recall very clearly a student coming up to me and said: ‘Doctor Brenner, what is going to be the next breakthrough in the nervous system?’ And I said to him, ‘you are 50 years too late, it's already happened, it's called the neuron hypothesis’. Because of course prior to that people thought that nervous systems were continua and the triumph of actually showing that they were built of nerve cells connected to each other, that was the breakthrough.

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: Seymour Benzer

Duration: 3 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010