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Nobel Prize for Medicine

Sydney Brenner, H. Robert Howvitz and John. E. Sulston have been jointly awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. The prize has been awarded by the Nobel assembly at Karolinksa Institute for 2002 for their discoveries concerning genetic regulation// of organ development and programmed cell death.

Sydney Brenner realized, in the early 1960’s, that fundamental questions regarding cell differentiation and organ development were hard to tackle in higher animals. Therefore, a genetically amenable and multicellular model organism simpler than mammals, was required. The ideal solution proved to be nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. This worm, approximately 1 mm long, has a short generation time and is transparent, which made it possible to follow cell division directly under the microscope. Brenner provided the basis in a publication from 1974, in which he broke new ground by demonstrating that specific gene mutations could be induced in the genome of C. elegans by the chemical compound EMS (ethyl methane sulphonate).

John Sulston extended Brenner’s work with C. elegans and developed techniques to study all cell divisions in the nematode, from the fertilized egg to the 959 cells in the adult organism. In a publication from 1976, Sulston described the cell lineage fro a part of the developing nervous system. He sowed that the cell lineage is invariant, i.e. every nematode underwent exactly the same program of cell division and differentiation. As a result of these findings Sulston made the seminal discovery that specific cells in the cell lineage always die through programmed cell death and that this could be monitored in the living organism. He described the visible steps in the cellular death process and demonstrated the first mutations of genes participating in programmed cell death, including the nuc-1 gene.

Robert Horvitz continued Brenner’s and Sulston’s work on the genetics and cell lineage of C. elegans. In a series o
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