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The roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans lives in soil, where it feeds mainly on bacteria. The humble worm made history in 1998 for being the first multicellular organism to have its genome completely sequenced.

Now, C. elegans has made another public appearance. Three scientists have jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries largely based on studies of C. elegans.

C. elegans was named for its rod-shaped look and elegant sinusoidal movement.

Sydney Brenner of Berkeley, California, John E. Sulston of Cambridge, England, and H. Robert Horvitz of Cambridge, Massachusetts have independently worked with C. elegans to piece together one of the central questions of life: how genes control organ development and cell death.

Because the worm is translucent, the researchers could track cell division under the microscope and see the organism grow from a fertilized egg to an adult worm. As C. elegans develops, some cells are programmed to die, leaving a total of 959 cells in adult worms.

The tiny worm is only about 1 millimeter long.

Studying the genes involved in programmed cell death in C. elegans helped the researchers identify related genes with similar functions in humans.

For more information, visit the Caenorhabditis elegans WWW Server

Birgit Reinert

The 2002 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Press release, The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden (October 7, 2002).

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