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Wednesday, September 16, 1998 Published at 21:23 GMT 22:23 UK


Tiny worm set for history

C elegans - about to make scientific history

Scientists are soon to achieve one of the great landmarks in science of the late 20th century - the decoding of the genetic blueprint of a worm. Our science editor Dr David Whitehouse reports:

A worm is a strange creature on which to make such grand claims, particularly since it is not the first living thing to have its genetic blueprint decoded. But that tiny worm contains genetic secrets of perhaps all life on Earth.

It is a nematode worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. This tiny spec holds the same secrets of life as other animals. Its genetic decoding will have profound implications for biology and medicine.

C elegans will achieve its place in history because it was chosen to be a so-called model organism. Along with fruit flies, zebra fish and mice it was to be studied in depth to reveal the basic principles of life.

An organism's collection of genes is called its genome. The human genome consists of about 100,000 genes - strands of DNA that make proteins. It is the proteins working together that make us what we are.

[ image: C elegans has 17,000 genes]
C elegans has 17,000 genes
Compared to humans, C elegans is simple and therefore appeals to scientists. It has only 17,000 genes, but it is "a little gold mine", according to Dr Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California. "Basically it is an animal that does everything animals do."

What makes the tiny worm so fascinating is that it is made of exactly 959 cells and each cell has a name.

C elegans may be just a worm but its kinship to humans is breathtaking. Most human genes that have been discovered have a counterpart in this tiny worm.

[ image: The worm's mouth]
The worm's mouth
Within weeks scientists will have the entire genetic blueprint of C elegans.

It will not be the first time that they have obtained the entire genome of a living thing but C elegans will be the first multi-celled creature to be genetically decoded.

C elegans is not alone in having its entire genetic code unravelled. At the moment perhaps 25 organisms have been decoded. By the end of the century we may have the complete genetic codes for perhaps 40 lifeforms.

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