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Labor-Intensive Tinkering Can Advance Science



(p. A24) When John E. Sulston was 5 years old and growing up in Britain, the son of an Anglican priest, his parents sent him to a private school. There, he discovered, sports were his nemesis.

"I absolutely loathed games," he said. "I was hopeless."

When it came to schoolwork, he said, he was "not a books person."

He had only one consuming interest: science. He liked to tinker, to figure out how things were put together.


. . .


The Nobel he received, shared with two other scientists, recognized the good data he amassed in his work on the tiny transparent roundworm C. elegans in an effort to better understand how organisms develop.


. . .


At the time, it was widely believed that the 558 cells the worm had when it hatched were all it would ever have. But Dr. Sulston noticed that, in fact, the worm kept gaining cells as it developed. And by tracing the patterns of divisions that gave rise to those new cells, he found, surprisingly, that the worm also lost cells in a predictable way. Certain cells were destined to die at a specific time, digesting their own DNA.

Dr. Sulston's next major project was to trace the fate of every single cell in a worm. It was a task so demanding and labor-intensive that other scientists still shake their heads in amazement that he got it done.

Each day, bending over his microscope for eight or more hours, he would start with a worm embryo and choose one of its cells. He would then watch the cell as it divided and follow each of its progeny cells as, together, they grew and formed the organism. This went on for a total of 18 months.

In the end, he had a complete map of every one of the worm's 959 cells (not counting sperm and egg cells).



For the full obituary, see:

GINA KOLATA. "John Sulston, 75; Tiny Worm Guided Him to Nobel." The New York Times (Friday, March 16, 2018): A24.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date MARCH 15, 2018, and has the title "John E. Sulston, 75, Dies; Found Clues to Genes in a Worm.")






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