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Putting fish genes into humans and mice


From fish to man in DNA
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Now, I think that what… what we will find immediately is how these pieces of DNA in this fish correspond to pieces in the human genome. So that we will see how perhaps some primordial vertebrate genome got fragmented in different ways as we pass from, let us say, the fish to man. Now, I'm going to make a… a little elision at this point, which is to assume that the – which I think I have the right to assume – that the fish is much closer to the original than we humans are. And that is, if we were to compare, without looking at any other evidence, the fish genome and the human genome, we could define what was the common… what was common to those genomes, and hence what presumably the parent of both did, but we wouldn't be able to say whether it was more like a fish or like a man. That is, both have travelled through the same length of time, but clearly we… we want to know who has travelled through more complexity space. And of course we know this, because we find fossils of fish going back half a billion years and don't find human fossils. So we know that this fish looks more like this. And hence although it has… the genome has been exposed in time to the same forces that the human genome, that is to the same forces of mutation and nucleotide substitution and so on, we can say that if we take genes from the fish and compare them with the human, in one sense we are looking across a half a billion years of the past. If you like, the fish has preserved in a fossil form the genome of a fossil fish in its present form. It's fossilised the genomes there, right, with what it is. But that tells us also that we can now find out what happened in evolution. Or at least we can make a good approximation to it. Now, let… to try to explain this, let us suppose I were to start a new genetic program and I wrote a grant saying I am now really interested in… in really interesting mutations; so I want to get a fish, I want to put it in the lab, and I want to make mutants and I want to turn it into a man. Because that's the only really interesting thing, nobody else is interested in anything else, because that's a… that's all we have to explain, is how fish became men in the course of time. And, of course, you know… you know you're a little fish at some point of your own development, you've got little gills and so on. So we could at least have tried to explain how you went on from being a little fish to being a little man.

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, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010