Three researchers who revolutionized developmental biology by deciphering the development of the tiny roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans have won this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The prize is shared by Sydney Brenner of the University of California, Berkeley, H. Robert Horvitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and John Sulston of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Their work has led to fundamental insights into how the nervous system and organs develop, as well as the process of programmed cell death that helps keep growth under proper control.
Brenner is a long-time favorite for the prize. In the 1960s, he promoted C. elegans as a model organism for studying how genes control development in animals. The tiny worm grows quickly in culture and is transparent, allowing scientists to observe cell division under the microscope as the animals develop.
Sulston, who worked with Brenner at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, U.K., led work in the early 1970s that traced the fate of each cell as the worm developed from fertilized egg to an adult with exactly 959 cells. During these studies, he and his colleagues noted that certain cells died in a consistent pattern. "Cell death was a long-standing and perplexing problem," notes Robert Waterston, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis, who also worked closely with Brenner. "When John [Sulston] deciphered the lineage and saw that these cells reproducibly died, it framed the problem in a very crisp way."
Horvitz, in turn, identified some of the genes that control this suicide program. These genes, called ced-3 and ced-4, as well as many others involved in the process, have counterparts in humans. Understanding programmed cell death has important implications in a wide range of medical fields, including HIV-AIDS, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases, the Nobel committee noted.
The trio's work goes well beyond the understanding of programmed cell death, says Michael Brand, a developmental biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden. "The most important part of their findings is that for the first time an animal with all its cells--and the fate of all its cells--was fully understood," he says, leading to new insights across developmental biology.
--GRETCHEN VOGEL, with reporting by PHILIPP WEIS