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Little critters with big secrets,
This review is from: In the Beginning Was the Worm: Finding the Secrets of Life in a Tiny Hermaphrodite (Paperback)
The revelations about life promised when the structure of DNA was deduced weren't immediately obvious. In fact, the more investigations proceeded, it was obvious it became that intense study and analysis would be needed. The inheritance of traits, both physical and behavioural, is a difficult mesh to unravel. Research on single-celled organisms, like E. coli, offered only part of the answers. Even the long years of work with fruit flies only hinted at how genes made bodies and habits. An intermediate creature was needed in order to map out how the DNA did its job. That creature was the humble nematode, about as long as your fingernail is thick. In this highly informative book, Andrew Brown traces the years of study undertaken by scientists and technicians to cut away some of the unknowns to derive answers.
"Cut away" is suggestive. The earliest work required understanding how the worm was assembled by its genes. That effort entailed slicing the worm in bits to map all the interconnections. For a creature made of less than a thousand cells, its body proved anything but simple. One researcher spent three decades studying the vulva of this hermaphrodite. Another, a technician, learned the finesse required to section the nerves in order that the pathways the wires followed could be tracked. No end of complexity was revealed and some of it remains mysterious today. Brown credits childhood habits that contributed to the talents these researchers applied to worm analysis. The "nerve-cutter" did jigsaw puzzles, while another was one of those kids constantly taking things apart - and reassembling them - when he was young. In sharp contrast to today's research environment, Brown notes, these individuals remained individuals, untrammeled by bureaucracy and often working with little or no supervision or even contact with their colleagues. Their own dedication kept them at their tasks for extended periods - and usually extended hours.
Why go to such extreme lengths to examine such a minuscule creature? It was due to Sydney Brenner. Brenner, the son of an illiterate, entered university at age fourteen. When he graduated, Brown notes, Brenner remained too young for legal employment in a university. Research, however, was an open and inviting path. After casting about for the right creature, in the early 1960s he settled on "Caenorhabditis elegans" [say it to yourself quickly!] for detailed study. It was Brenner's vision that the information gleaned would lead to further insights into development and nervous systems - body building and behaviour. Although little was said of it at the time, the techniques would lead to how human behaviour roots would also be revealed.
After describing the details of the progress of the "C. elegans" research, Brown describes the growing interest in launching the Human Genome Project. Although nobody proposed slicing up humans to find out what made them tick, other methods were already being developed. Even mapping the simple worm had proven such a tedious task that when computers entered biology laboratories, Brenner and others made quick use of them. The merging of biology and research led to "the algorithm of the worm". Computer images made the mapping process easier for analysis. Databases of the generations of mutations led to better identification of which genes produced the changes. Although even today, some of these mutations remain to be tracked with detail or assurance. The worm, like much of life, retains mysteries demanding more work.
It was these computer methods that made the study of the human genome feasible. Various techniques arose to map the genome, some of them, such as Craig Venter's "skipping over" method, brought the picture of the human genome closer, if incomplete. They also led to the dispute over patenting genes. Brown notes how Brenner was an early dissenter against this practice. His objections led to a Britain versus the US dichotomy about where gene research should lead. There remains dispute over why Brenner was such a strenuous opponent. Whatever else the study of the little worm brought to biology, there is no doubt its rewards are highly significant. If nothing else, the awarding of three Nobel Prizes must be counted as great.
Brown's effort in researching this book, from delving into the literature to extensive interviews with the surviving participants, makes it worthwhile. There are several personal accounts of the time, which Brown fully acknowledges. He cites frequently the "Worm-Breeder's Gazette" which proved to be a unifying information exchange among the scattered scholars that emerged from the original studies. The "Gazette" tied together not only distant researchers, but the work of those who closely studied small aspects and had no other means of learning who was doing what in other laboratories. Brown's only shortcoming here is a rather patchy prose style. He also engages in some unnecessary repetition, giving the chapters the effect of a set of loosely-tied essays. A good Index - which this book thankfully contains - should have eliminated this approach. The other flaw, far more serious, is the total lack of graphic material. Photographs and diagrams would have made this book peerless. "In the Beginning" is a valuable book, but could have been first class with a bit more effort. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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