As embryos unfold, many of the cells produced during their development will commit suicide. This is no birth defect, but a key process in the sculpture of sophisticated organs and limbs. Scientists call it apoptosis or programmed cell death, our knowledge of which is owed in great part to a microscopic worm, which lives in abundance deep within our compost heaps, quietly feeding on the microorganisms that decompose our food. Caenorhabditis elegans is not only common in nature, but has become widely used as a model organism in the scientific world. Sir John Sulston (pictured) – born on this day in 1942 – won a Nobel Prize for his part in discovering the first mutation in a key apoptosis gene using the worm. As he explains, “The whole point about the worm is that many processes in tiny animals are essentially similar in bigger ones.”
Written by Brona McVittie
BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences the website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biomedicine. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.
BPoD is also available in Catalan at www.bpod.cat with translations by the University of Valencia.