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Genetics giants share Nobel

Research on genes for cell division and organ development scoops prize.

Life's work: the Laureates studied the worm C. Elegans. Credit: © SPL

Three molecular biologists share this year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Together they turned the worm Caenorhabditis elegans into a key model for the study of animal cell biology and organ development. The influence of their findings and foresight has been felt from lab bench to bedside.

Britons Sydney Brenner, president of the Molecular Sciences Institute in Berkeley, California, John Sulston of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge, UK and American Robert Horvitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will each receive a third of a million US dollars at a ceremony in Sweden on 10 December.

"This is a beautiful combination of people to win the prize," says Paul Sternberg, who works on worm behaviour at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. Geneticist Michael Stern of Yale University, Connecticut agrees: "It was pretty clear that these folks were very good candidates".

Brenner, 75, is credited with pioneering the field of C. elegans biology at Cambridge University, UK in the 1960s. He chose the worm because it was more complex than other well-understood organisms, such as bacteria, yet still simple enough to study in depth. "It took great foresight to go into this brand new field back in the 1960s" says Stern.

Sulston is famed as one of the fathers of the human genome project. But as one of Brenner's first students at Cambridge during the 1970s, Sulston spent years staring down a microscope at dividing worm cells. He eventually put together a detailed chart showing how the egg gives rise to all 959 cells in the adult worm. He also realized that many cells deliberately commit suicide during worm development in a process called programmed cell death.

This is a beautiful combination of people to win the prize Paul Sternberg , CalTech

Horvitz, also working at Brenner's Cambridge lab, was the first to pinpoint genes that control cell suicide, and to demonstrate that human cells also die in a programmed way during development. These insights led to a better understanding of how genes shape human health and disease, especially cancer.

Concludes Sternberg: "Brenner deserves this prize for setting up the field, Sulston is the quintessential bench scientist who also has grand vision. And Bob [Horvitz] is responsible for many of the biological insights we learned from the worm."

The Nobel committee will announce the winners of the physics prize today; the chemistry and economics awards will be revealed on Wednesday. Nobel prizes, the highest accolade for scientists, have been granted since 1901.

Erika Check is Nature'_s Washington Biological Sciences Correspondent. For more on this year's Nobel Prizes see the news section of "Nature":http://www.nature.com/nature/, the international weekly journal of science, on 10 October 2002_.

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Check, E. Genetics giants share Nobel. Nature (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/news021007-2

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