March 23, 2003

Review: Science: In the Beginning was the Worm by Andrew Brown

by Andrew Brown

Simon & Schuster £15.99 pp244
Andrew Brown made his mark in the literature of science with The Darwin Wars, a superb account of rivalries and feuding in the world of academe. Rather than trying to top that, he has gone to the other extreme in his new book, focusing on a field of research that has involved small teams of dedicated people working in perfect harmony for 40 years to unravel the mystery of life. Their approach was to try and understand everything about a tiny kind of nematode worm, only half a millimetre long, whose each individual, although undoubtedly alive, is made up of just 959 cells. Each member of the species is genetically identical to every other member of the species, they can be grown happily in small containers in the laboratory, and they have the great advantage of being transparent, so the biologists can see what is going on inside them. This worm was the first creature to have its entire genetic code mapped, the forerunner of the much more famous (and much more controversial) human genome project.

Why else choose nematodes? Not least because of their ubiquity. In a striking analogy, Brown notes that if a sample of 5m different kinds of animal were taken at random from our planet, 4m of them would be nematodes. They parasitise almost every other kind of life, plant and animal (including ourselves), so that worm researchers are fond of pointing out that, if every living thing on earth were to disappear except nematodes, the ghostly outline of every plant and animal would remain, traced by the parasites.

The best thing about the book is that Brown has immersed himself in his subject, travelling widely, interviewing anybody who is anybody in the field of nematode research, and clearly growing to love the worms as much as they do. The result is a thorough and accurate historical monograph, addressed to the highly committed lay person, but likely to make its greatest mark among scientists and historians of science. For the very factors that make the book successful at one level count against it for a different audience. Brown is so eager to show off all the knowledge he has acquired that the text is littered with footnotes, many of them unnecessary. The other drawback is that, although Brown waxes lyrical about the beauty of the worms seen under the microscope, there is not a single illustration in the book — as if he had written an unillustrated life of Rembrandt.

I am also not quite sure if the book counts as a “popularisation” of science. We learn how progress was made by people happy to work for 12 or 18 hours a day, six days a week, for years on end, with modest pay and little or no hope of glory, an image hardly likely to encourage young people to take up such a career. But it does at least give this unglamorous aspect of science an airing, and the conclusion to the book shows why a few people are driven enough to work under such conditions — “When we understand the worm,” Brown quotes one of the leading protagonists as saying, “we’ll understand life.”

As worm researchers and other molecular biologists now acknowledge, however, knowing the genetic blueprint of an organism is far from being the end of the story. Genes are made of DNA, and the instructions coded in the DNA tell living cells how to make protein. Understanding proteins thoroughly is at least as important to understanding life as DNA, and many more long hours of work will be needed to take that next step. And there is still the far from trivial puzzle of development — how a single fertilised egg “knows” how to develop into an adult multi- celled organism.

But there are always lesser insights (I hesitate to say highlights) to look out for along the way, and connoisseurs of the bizarre will delight in Brown’s explanation of how the Black Death in humans is a side effect of a defence mechanism that evolved among certain bacteria to prevent them being eaten by nematodes. He also explains why it is sometimes correct to portray the genetic code as a computer program, and why in other ways the analogy breaks down, and how the worm research spawned the human genome project. There is plenty here for anyone with a serious interest in how science is done, and it is well worth putting up with those footnotes to get to the meat of the story.

But, please, can we have some pictures in the paperback?

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