Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Life and Death
27 March 2012

Life and Death

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

  • Wellcome Library, London
  • Originally published under Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-ND); Courtesy of Wellcome Images

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