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October 14, 2002
Volume 80, Number 41
CENEAR 80 41 p. 13
ISSN 0009-2347


Three recognized for using roundworm to figure out how cells kill themselves


With the help of a tiny worm, three scientists received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for determining that organisms develop and maintain their organs and tissues by instructing specific cells to commit suicide.

Sydney Brenner, 75, founder of Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, Calif., and a professor at Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in San Diego, will share the $1 million prize equally with fellow Briton Sir John E. Sulston, 60, of Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, England, and American H. Robert Horvitz, 55, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

C. elegans
For each of the winners, the prize "is well deserved, and for Brenner, it's long overdue," says biochemist Xiaodong Wang of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

Brenner's contributions to genetics include identifying messenger RNA with Francis Crick and Matthew Meselson and, with Crick, figuring out that the genetic code is read in three-letter units. But it was his pioneering work with the soil roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans in the 1960s and '70s that earned him this year's Nobel. A relatively simple multicellular creature, the worm is genetically tractable, easy to grow, and transparent, allowing cell division in the growing worm to be observed with a microscope. Brenner turned C. elegans--a worm that, at the time, had gone relatively unnoticed--into the quintessential model system for studying how genetic changes affect development.

Sulston and Horvitz were among the early converts to Brenner's worm model. Sulston extended Brenner's work by tracing the "family tree" of every cell in C. elegans. Sulston found that, although 1,090 cells are produced from a single fertilized C. elegans egg cell, only 959 remain by the time the worm reaches adulthood. The other 131 cells, Sulston discovered, are instructed to commit suicide via a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death.

Horvitz went on to characterize the genes that control apoptosis in C. elegans. He subsequently showed that higher organisms, including humans, have related genes with similar functions--proving that programmed cell death is not just for worms.

Indeed, the same process is also crucial for human embryonic development, such as the elimination of the tissue that grows between the fingers and toes of a human embryo. It's also important for normal tissue maintenance in adulthood: Although human adults generate more than a trillion new cells a day, an equal number are eliminated by programmed cell death. Malfunctioning of such cell-suicide pathways disrupts this delicate balance and can lead to autoimmune diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, and cancer.

Calling the selection "spectacular and richly deserved," biologist Eric S. Lander of MIT's Whitehead Institute says the prize "honors a clear, coherent, and tremendously important intellectual program that has led to deep understanding about how cells choose their fate in development."

"Each of these scientists could have landed a Nobel for other work," says biologist Michael Hengartner of the University of Zurich. But in bringing them together in this way, he adds, the Nobel committee has demonstrated the importance of the model organism C. elegans to the fields of developmental biology, physiology, and medicine. "It's a terrific choice."

PRIZED Horvitz, and Sulston share Physiology or Medicine Nobel.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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